Discover the Ghost Towns of Japan–Where Scarecrows Replace People, and a Man Lives in an Abandoned Elementary School Gym

By Colin Marshall

In recent years, the major cities of Japan have felt as big and bustling as ever. But more than a little of that urban energy has come at a cost to the countryside, whose ongoing depopulation since the Second World War has become the stuff of countless mournful photo essays. Japan is, of course, well-known as the kind of society that keeps a rural train station in service just to take a single pupil to school. But in many of these areas, the day eventually comes when there’s no one left to teach. After not just the students but the faculty and staff have cleared out, what to do with the schools themselves? If you’re anything like Aoki Yohei (known to all as “Yo-chan”), you just move yourself on in.

In one of the school’s many rooms Aoki runs a café, roasting coffee on the premises, and in others he’s set up a hostel. In another space he’s created a recording studio outfitted with guitars, drums, keyboards, and much else besides. This sort of thing would hardly be possible within the confines of a Tokyo apartment, and Aoki accomplished it all after quitting his salaryman job without a plan.

Or rather he did it noupuran, to use one of the many Englishisms he drops in the interview with Tokyo Lens vlogger Norm Nakamura in the video at the top of the post. The school is in Ehime, one of the four prefectures of Shikoku, the second-smallest of Japan’s main islands. Though picturesque, its location is also deep enough in the mountains to seem forbiddingly remote, but the Ehime-born Aoki seems to have had no compunction about it.

Ehime faces the Seto Inland Sea, the areas surrounding which Japanologist Donald Richie described in the 1960s as possessing “the last places on earth where men rise with the sun and where streets are dark and silent by nine at night.” But for Nakamura, nine is the hour to set out in search of unexplained sounds and creepy vibes. Alas, even his best production efforts can’t mask the obvious serenity of the property. He encounters much more eeriness elsewhere on Shikoku: Nagoro Village, the vast majority of whose inhabitants aren’t human beings but fully dressed, scarecrow-like dolls. Each and every one was crafted by Tsukimi Ayano, a native who returned from Osaka to find most everyone she’d known long gone. As for Nagoro’s own elementary school, abandoned for some 20 years now, just wait until you see what “Ayano-san” has done with its gym.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.