Tokyo: In the tiny village of Nagoro, deep in the mountains of western Japan, the wind howls down a deserted street with not a living soul to be seen.
But yet the street appears busy, dotted with life-sized dolls that outnumber humans 10 to one, the product of a one-woman bid to counter the emptiness and loneliness felt in Nagoro, like many Japanese villages decimated by depopulation.
Nagoro, around 550 kilometres (400 miles) southwest of Tokyo, has become known as the valley of dolls after local resident Tsukimi Ayano began placing scarecrows on the street to inject some life into her depopulated village.
"Only 27 people live in this village but the number of scarecrows is tenfold, like 270," the 69-year-old doll maker told AFP in an interview at her home.
It all started 16 years ago when the dexterous Ayano created a scarecrow dressed in her father's clothes to prevent birds eating the seeds she had planted in her garden. "A worker who saw it in the garden thought it really was my father... he said hello but it was a scarecrow. It was funny," recalled Ayano.
Since then, Ayano has not stopped creating the life-size dolls, made with wooden sticks, newspapers to fill the body, elastic fabrics for skin and knitting wool for hair. The skilful craftswoman needs only three days to make adult-sized dolls that are now scattered all around the village.
The secret to breathing life into the dolls? Applying pink colour to the lips and cheeks with a make-up brush, revealed Ayano. At the local school, she has placed 12 colourful child-sized dolls at desks, positioned as if part of a lively class poring over their books.
The school closed seven years ago as there was no one left to teach, she recalled sadly. "Now there are no children. The youngest person here is 55 years old." Down the street, a "family" of scarecrows lounges in front of an abandoned grocery shop while a doll dressed as an old farmer window-shops next door.
Near the bus stop, a group of scarecrows gathers as another "father" doll pulls a cart full of "children."
While never humming with people, Ayano remembers as a child that Nagoro was once a well-to-do place with some 300 residents and labourers supported by the forestry industry and dam construction work.
"People gradually left... It's lonely now," she said. "I made more dolls as I remembered the time when the village was lively." Nagoro's plight is replicated all around Japan, as the world's third-largest economy battles a declining population, low birth rate and high life expectancy.
The country is on the verge of becoming the first "ultra-aged" country in the world, meaning that 28 per cent of people are aged 65 or above. The latest government report shows that 27.7 per cent of a population of 127 million one in four people are aged 65 or older and the figure is expected to jump to 37.7 per cent in 2050.
According to experts, around 40 per cent of Japan's 1,700 municipalities are defined as "depopulated."