A Haunt of Scarecrows

There doesn’t seem to be anything as creepy as Japanese scarecrows. Scarecrows themselves are rarely comforting, a fact which should not surprise considering the first half of their name. Japanese scarecrows are never, evidently, alone. I have seen several in one field, just floating in their odd way, spaced out tactically like a ghostly patrol. If Japanese scarecrows have a collective noun, I bet it’s a haunt, or a terror, or a let’s get the frick out of here.

I saw my first scarecrows as we took a train into the mountains. We stopped for another train to pass and right there in a forgotten field of tall wet stalks was a haunt of scarecrows. I was relieved when our train rumbled back to life.

I am now in the mountain village of Shirakawa-gō in the Ryōhaku Mountains. The scarecrows here have been nailed to the wall of a house, bringing a tortured aspect to their already odd countenance. Shirakawa-gō is a traditional farming village noted for its gasshō-zukuri-styled minka, which are houses with very steep thatched rooves. As the village is an actual village and not a recreation, visitors walk through in quiet and there is a very hushed feel about the place. Outside of poking around their home, nobody wants to disrupt the local residents. So there are no voices.

I wonder if the scarecrows serve dual purposes, to scare away crows and tourists. The villagers make money from the tourists, so they don’t want to drive them away with actual horror, but the scarecrows probably provide an atmosphere that says: don’t hang around too much, gaijin.

And we listen. We take our pictures, enjoy the muggy walk (even the mountains are humid in Japan). We would try not to disrupt the local people, but we don’t seem to find any so that’s not a problem. It’s more like a village of tourists and the occasional shopkeeper. We leave the village’s rice paddy fields and the mist that latices their borders.

Later in the afternoon we visit the onsen. An onsen is a hot spring that is meant to rejuvenate the body and spirit, and today we both need it as we are the only two people who can travel in a humid country and come down with a cold. The heat in the spring is endurable for only a few minutes before we need to get out and stand naked on the terrace. We joke that we were hoping to see women in the all nude spa, but we haven’t. As a matter of fact, we mention, we haven’t seen much of anyone. We stare into the foliage around us and the bridge which ends in a tunnel.

I decide that Shirakawa-gō is a little creepy. I am not used to a place so quiet and sparsely populated, especially after the rush of Tokyo. I was looking forward to these aspects of the village, but now I find it a bit disconcerting. Mark and I walk from the tiny village back to our guesthouse, which is well outside of town in the middle of empty fields. It’s while walking back that I notice two or three distant haunts of scarecrows. I make a note, but I do not stop walking.

Perhaps it is telling that instead of being inundated by a sense of quietude and meditation in the mountains, I am attacked by the visions of every Japanese horror movie I have ever seen. Had I been asked a few months ago to describe a perfect weekend getaway, I might have detailed a quiet village in the mountains, a solitary place where I could read and write, a place void of the noise pollution of cars, trams, and other humans. In other words: this village. But now that I’m here I feel uneasy with the quiet; my imagination is getting the better of me.

In the evening we walk back into town to find dinner. I make sure to note the locations of the scarecrow haunts. Wasn’t that haunt a bit closer to….nah. Just being paranoid. I do line it up to a shack in the distance. As if complementing my paranoid surveys, the place is desolate. We find what should be two restaurants, but are rejected by locked doors and dark interiors. We see two women cooking and try to ask if they are doing so at a working restaurant, but we are turned away, and after we turn our backs the curtains are drawn. Moments later, at 6 p.m., an unseen loudspeaker fills the air with a wailing siren and a distorted recording.

We half-jog back to our guesthouse after stopping on the way for sandwiches, chips, and beer. If I’m going to be murdered by a scarecrow, at least I’ll be drunk. A while after we hole up inside the solitary guesthouse, the mountain sky goes the kind of dark only attained in Christopher Nolan films. The purple outline of hills and mountains become less discernible and the house lights snap off until we are the only light in the village. We watch a weird gameshow that would be a perfect ironic backdrop to our grisly murders.

We turn in, my bed is next to an open window. I look out through the window into the shape of a mountain beyond a long field. If any of those scarecrows creep across this field, I’ll be the first to go, but first, this place is going to get a low rating on airbnb.

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