The Japanese are a funny bunch. They love eating raw fish, go mad for baseball and hardcore pro wrestling, can’t go a day without singing karaoke and are obsessed with giant robots. It sounds like an idyllic lifestyle, so it’s surprising that their other favourite pastime is committing suicide.
More than 70 people kill themselves in Japan every day, and its been an important part of their culture for thousands of years. Suicide is tolerated by Japanese society, and is seen as a reasonable reaction to failure. If we had a similar situation in Australia, there’d be no football players left in
Cronulla Canberra. Death is a part of everyday life in this country, and Aokigahara is where more Japanese have ended their lives than anywhere else.
Also known as The Sea of Trees or The Suicide Forest, around 100 people die there every single year. It’s been a popular place to shuffle off this mortal coil for centuries, with the number of deaths rising in recent years after being popularised by a number of films and books. The forest sits in the shadows of Mount Fuji, and so I made it my final destination on this leg of the Drunk and Jobless World Tour™
Fuji is fucking incredible. I first saw it while travelling from Kyoto to Tokyo by bus, and was amazed by the size of it. I assumed it was about three or four kilometres away – it was actually 35km from me. It’s massive, majestic and beautiful, and it’s not hard to see why it’s become the symbol of Japan. The second time I saw it from the window of a bus was minutes before I alighted at Kawaguchiko Station, ready to start my journey through a mythical part of the world.
The Fuji Five Lakes are scattered around the foot of the behemoth, and provide the perfect setting to peer up at that majestic mountain. I was hoping to climb Fuji (it’s only 4km high – what could possibly go wrong?) but the walking trails are closed for all but a few weeks a year, and there aren’t any cable cars to the top, but looking up at it from Lake Kawaguchi was enough to fill my heart with wonder. It’s a delightful lake surrounded by European-style chateaus and steep, tree lined cliffs, with a nice path rambling around it. Pushbikes are available, but cost upwards of $30 Aussie for a few hours, so I just made the most of the pegs God gave me and strutted around like a latter-day Michael Jackson.
The lake and mountain were beautiful, but that’s not what I came for. It was time to head out to Aokigahara, which sits on the banks of Lake Sai, a few kilometres to the west of Kawaguchi. I expected the bus to be full of curious sightseers, but it wasn’t. I was the only person who got off at the bat cave that lays on the outskirts of the trees, and when I walked over to the small information centre and asked for directions to the suicide forest, the woman just shook her head and walked away. I guess she’d seen too many people head into the forest and never come out. Maybe she went to call the police. Whatever the reason, I headed off, found the entrance to Aokigahara, and walked into the green.
It was a bright and sunny day outside, but that didn’t matter once I got in amongst the trees. They’re so thick that they blocked out the sky, and tangled together to make it appear as if I was making my way along an endless wooden corridor. There wasn’t a sound. No animals or birds live in the forest, and the wind has no hope of penetrating the thicket. I didn’t dare leave the path – those who do rarely find it again. As I walked along the dilapidated walkway, the only sign of humanity was broken signs strewn along the dirt. I can’t read Japanese, but it wasn’t hard to work out what they were; last-ditch attempts to stop people from killing themselves. I delved deeper into the forest.
I hike and bushwalk a lot, and so I’m used to being in remote places by myself. Aokigahara, however, is different. It doesn’t feel alive in the way that most forests do. Instead, it feels frozen in time and very, very sad. I found myself becoming depressed just being in there, for seemingly no reason. The dark things that have happened there will remain forever. The pain and desperation of the thousands who have walked into those trees is still there. I walked in hoping, morbidly, that I might find some sign of those who had gone before me. A discarded shoe, an abandoned book, anything, Withing 15 minutes, the thought of finding something like that made me feel as if something was crawling around inside my skull.
I hurried along he path, wanting to take everything in but not wanting to see anything. Out in the distance, amongst the scrub, I occasionally saw flags, shirts, and other personal items. I didn’t dare look too long in their direction. In places ribbons streamed out from the path, winding through the trees and out into the darkness. Those who walk into the trees to end their lives usually leave them as guides for rangers, so that their corpses can be found. Before I visited Aokigahara, I intended to follow one of those ribbons; once I was in the forest, I didn’t dare to.
Once I was nearing the exit of the forest, I started to relax. It was almost over. And then I heard a crashing sound from the bushes around me. I’m used to such sounds in Australia, where kangaroos and brush turkeys are constantly following me around, but the way it tore through the silence terrified me. I turned and strained my eyes in the darkness, seeing a mop of jet black hair bobbing through the trees in the distance. My heart was racing, but I knew I had to the find the person. Maybe I could step between them and tragedy.
Moving silently through the forest, I kept my eyes on the figure. It was a young man, probably no older than 18. I called out to him moments before tripping over a fallen branch and plunging to the ground. When I got back up, the man was gone. I ran to where I’d last seen him, but there was no one. Small caves were carved into the ground, but he wasn’t in them. I hadn’t heard him run, but he was gone. I sat down under a to catch my breath, while the world swam in front of me. For a whisper of a moment, I felt something brush against the top of my head. I looked up.
None of this seems real now. I look back on it and laugh, because it couldn’t have happened. But it did. When I looked up, for the briefest time I saw the young man hanging from that tree, his feet dangling by my face. I got up and ran, and when I looked back there was no one there. Sitting here, I wonder why I didn’t go back and investigate, but deep down I know the reason – I was fucking scared. That forest is strange and scary and full of ghosts, and it caused me to see something that I wasn’t prepared to see. Some places have been home to so much tragedy and sadness that those events change them forever. The thin fabric between reality and nightmare tears, and terrible things climb through. That’s how it is in the Aokigahara forest. It’s a bad place, a mad place, and a very lonely place to die.