Mount Fuji, that great summit on the Japanese mainland, dominates its surroundings with a brazen majesty. One of Japan’s trio of holy peaks and so beloved of Hokusai, its snowy cone thrusts into the air as if trying in vain to marry land with sky. Naturally, Fuji has become an unmistakable symbol of Japan and is revered and celebrated throughout the nation’s history. Yet, almost unknown to Westerners, a very different place to the serene mountain sprawls at its base. A vast forest where the soil is fed by more than the usual leaf litter, long has Aokigahara Jukai been a name to whisper after dark. In lean years gone by impoverished local inhabitants would bring those that could not feed themselves to the forest to die. The elderly and infirm, the young and disturbed would die long, drawn-out demises starving to death, their unheeded cries stifled by the notorious denseness of the trees.
A path through a 'sea of trees'
But Aokigahara is no long-defunct burial ground existing now only as a tangled memorial, because even today the newly dead swing from its twisted boughs or lie rotting into its volcanic earth. Furthermore, it is not only the living and the deceased that occupy the forest; it is said that Yurei, Japanese spirits of the dead that cling to the earthly realm, flit between the trees; their white, shifting forms glimpsed occasionally by unsuspecting visitors.
Fuji rises above Aokigahara
Perching upon the volcanic rock that was once spewed from the maw of Mount Fuji itself, the vast forest sprawls over a 3,500 hectare wide area. This hard, rocky ground has been laid down by the eruptions that have punctuated this region’s geological history making it difficult for the trees to fully take root and their moss-covered attempts snake, intertwine and twist over the irregular ground.
Narusawa ice cave at Aokigahara
Caves are another unusual feature of the forest. There are over two hundred of them and many more wait silently to be discovered. Some of the caves are ‘compound tree-molds’ formed after vast trees were knocked down by the violence of past eruptions and subsequently covered by lava. Once the trees burned or rotted away they left behind criss-crossing tunnels. Other caverns were caused by the separation of rocks, powered by the expansion of gases. Some of the caves contain ice even during the warm summer months and tourists visit to take in these subterranean vistas.
Known for being eerie and discomforting, the thickness of the tree-life, the twisting network of woody vines and the ankle-breaking unevenness of the forest floor conspire to give the place an unwelcoming and disquieting topography. Popular legend maintains that no wildlife makes Aokigahara Jukai home; no happy birdsong breaks the peculiar silence, instead replaced by shadows and the occasional whistle of the wind through the dense tree canopy. Colored tape used by walkers to find their way and then discarded to settle upon the forest floor, accoutrements and makeshift equipment, used to facilitate the suicide of its recent victims, along with bouquets of flowers left by grieving friends and family members, dot the forest floor.
More trees in Aokigahara forest
Despite being outdated and illegal, the influence of Ubasute (the act of leaving a dependent to die) has echoed through the years and remains in Japan’s cultural consciousness, but this alone doesn’t explain the modern resurgence in Aokigahara‘s popularity among the despondent. Popular thinking points the finger of blame at two books: the 1960 novel, Kuroi Jukai, by Seichō Matsumoto, which culminates in the suicide of two lovers in Aokigahara; and Wataru Tsurumui’s controversial 1993 bestseller, The Complete Suicide Manual, a book which describes various modes of suicide and even recommends Aokigahara as “the perfect place to die”.
According to myth, the latter tome (The Complete Suicide Manual) is found from place to place in the forest. While literature may have a part to play in helping to romanticize the forest as a suicide hot-spot, the problem of suicide is endemic to Japan. CNN reports: “There were 2,645 suicides recorded in January 2009, a 15% increase from the 2,305 for January 2008, according to the Japanese government. The Japanese government said suicide rates are a priority and pledged to cut the number of suicides by more than 20 percent by 2016. It plans to improve suicide awareness in schools and workplaces. But officials fear the toll will rise with unemployment and bankruptcies, matching suicide spikes in earlier tough economic times.”
The tangled forest and dense boughs
Local government declines to publish the numbers of suicides committed in the forest in recent years in an attempt to counteract the idea that Aokigahara is some kind of suicide hub. But still the ‘sea of trees’ remains Japan’s most popular setting for the world-weary to take their own lives, second in the world only to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
Noose of death
The method of choice for those seeking to usher themselves into the next life is, rather incongruously for a forest, hanging. There is also a lofty waterfall amid the white cedars, pines and boxwoods which provides the more adventurous with a diving board into the hereafter. But even if you aren’t going there to die, you can still lose your way and come to a sticky end. An oft-quoted legend insists massive underground iron deposits cause compasses to go haywire and interfere with GPS devices. Not only that, but cenotes, collapsed lava tubes, hidden caves and the chance of running into a corpse swinging from a creaking bough are ever present.
Aokigahara forest – a sea of trees
Zack Davisson, a researcher for SeekJapan, describes what might also be another urban myth: “Even in these haunted woods, regular humans still have a job to do. Forestry workers rotate in and out of shifts at a station building in Aokigahara, and occasionally they will come upon unfortunate bodies in various states of decomposition, usually hanging from trees or partially eaten by animals. The bodies are brought down to the station, where a spare room is kept especially for such occasions. In this room are two beds: one for the corpse and one for someone to sleep next to it. Yup, you read that correctly. It is thought that if the corpse is left alone, the lonely and unsettled Yurei will scream the whole night through, and the body will move itself into the regular sleeping quarters.”
Dark and gloomy
Asuza Hayano, a Japanese writer, criticises those who kill themselves in the area: “Walking through Aokigahara uncharted is dangerous,” he says. “But nature is supposed to be like that. Harsh. Aokigahara is filled with untouched natural beauty. To sully it by committing suicide is a slap in the face of the natural environment.”
Aokigahara and Lake Saiko seen from Koyodai
A local police officer shares Asuza Hayano's views: “It bugs the hell out of me that the area's famous for being a suicide spot. I’ve seen plenty of bodies that have been really badly decomposed, or been picked at by wild animals... There's nothing beautiful about dying in there.”