Resting in the shadow of Mount Fuji a lush forest stretches out over 35 kilometers. The forest is very dense, denser than most, to the point of shutting out all but a few natural sounds. Two amazing caves lie within the confines of this tightly packed landscape. The natural beauty of the Aokigahara (a-ok ig-ahara) forest alone should make it notable as a tourist attraction, but the fact that it’s the second most common spot on the planet for people to commit suicide makes it legendary. Known as the suicide forest, Aokigahara is considered one of the scariest places on earth with deep ties to ancient Japanese mythology and legend.
About the Area
The Aokigahara forest is less than 100 miles west of Tokyo and is known by the locals as Jukai (“Sea of Trees”) because of its extreme density. Others claim the “sea of trees” name comes from the way the tops of the trees move like seawater when viewed from afar. The density makes the forest quite unique being extremely quiet with very little wildlife evident. There are purportedly places in the dense forest where the sun beams don’t reach the ground and wind can’t pass through. The forest attracts sightseers and tourists because of the two major caves located here, The Ice Cave and the Wind Cave. Due to the vastness of the forest visitors are unlikely to encounter anyone once inside and the soil composition is mostly impenetrable volcanic rock, with many rich deposits of magnetic iron, rendering compasses, cellular phones, and GPS units useless. It’s not recommended to leave the official trail system as rescue is nearly impossible and hikers often use tape to mark a pathway for exiting after their visit.
The Narusawa Ice Cave is a natural monument that was formed around the year 864 following a volcanic eruption of Mount Fuji. It’s about 500 feet long and the temperature inside hovers around the freezing point, and is covered in ice all year long. What makes it so attractive to visitors are the remarkable displays of iced rooms, columns and pillars hanging down from the cave’s ceiling. The Fugaku Wind Cave, which back in the day served as a big refrigerator for storing silkworms, is about 700 feet long and 27 feet high. The cave was also formed by lava after ten straight days of eruptions from Mt. Fuji and has as average temperature of about 37F. all year, and was used for a cold storage for silkworms long ago. Ironically there is no echo sound in this cave even though it’s considered a closed cave. The caves themselves have not been reported as haunted or spooky, but the forest itself has many stories that will make you shiver and the locals have spoken about hearing what sounds like screaming emitting from the depths of the trees during the night.
Myths, Legends, and History
Visitors have claimed the forest is haunted and there have been claims that wispy white figures drift between the trees. Whether these apparitions were real or a figment of the imagination doesn’t matter, there are plenty of Japanese people who would not dare to enter the forest day or night. Some Japanese spiritualists believe that the spirits of the numerous suicides committed in the forest have somehow permeated the trees, creating a type of paranormal snare which prevents visitors from escaping the forest’s depths. Others believe the ghosts, or yurei, of those abandoned by an ancient Japanese practice called ubasute haunt the forest. Ubasute is a merciless form of euthanasia resorted to in times of famine. It roughly translate to “abandoning the old woman,” and literally was that; a family would have one less mouth to feed after they took an elderly family member deep into the forest and abandoned them to die. Starvation, exposure, or dehydration would overcome the victim, but only after lengthy suffering. It’s been said that their spirits live in the woods and they are vengeful and dedicated to tormenting visitors and luring those that are sad and lost, off the paths to follow through with their suicide attempt. Whether myth of fact, these tales collectively add to the mysterious and macabre perception of the forest among locals, visitors, and scholars across the world.
Come to Visit or Come to Die
The local people have identified three types of visitors to the forest; Hikers or tourists looking to see the caves or Mount Fuji, people looking to catch a glimpse of something death-related, or those who are not planning on returning. There are signs in both English and Japanese posted in multiple locations and at the entrances to various trails which have messages that attempt to deter people from suicide, such as, “Let’s think once more about the life you were given, your parents, your brothers and sisters, and children. Don’t suffer alone first please contact somebody.” A phone number is also listed for a suicide hotline. Others say, “Your life is something precious that was given to you by your parents,” and “Meditate on your parents, siblings and your children once more. Do not be troubled alone.” Video cameras have been installed along the trails leading into the forest to identify potential candidates. Local shops near the woods do not sell any items that could be used to assist in a suicide, such as rope as hanging is the preferred method of suicide. Workers and police will approach suspicious looking individuals (men in suits are often targeted) and questioning them on their state of mind. But despite the preventative measures, the number of annual suicides committed or attempted in the forest is high; high enough that the data is no longer made available to the public. The last time the data was publically available was 2003, when 105 confirmed suicides were reported. Locals say that more people than are officially reported come here to die each year, but due to the denseness of the forest are never found.
Search For Corpses
Since 1971 authorities have been sweeping the forest periodically in search of bodies. Annually about 70 corpses are found by volunteers who clean the woods but many are forever lost in the very thick woods. The villagers from the three surrounding towns who take part in the clean-up are particularly bothered by the forest’s suicide reputation. The local police see plenty of bodies that have been really badly decomposed, or been picked at by wild animals. The volunteer workers have it even worse as they must carry the decomposing bodies down from the forest to the local station, where they are put in a special room used specifically to house suicide corpses. The workers then play jan-ken-pon, or rock, paper, scissors, to determine who has to sleep in the room with the corpse. They believed that if a corpse is left alone, it is very bad luck for the yurei of the person. Their spirits are said to scream throughout the night, and their bodies will move on their own, both which contribute to the legends of the place. The three villages bordering Aokigahara forest are responsible for the bodies that turn up, hitting each village hard financially for the search and storage work. They must also try to find the relatives of the unclaimed bodies. In 2010 at the end of the year Kamikuishiki village held 119 unclaimed bodies, Ashiwada had 52 and Narusawa had 60, all in various states of decay.
Suicide Rate in Japan & Understand Why this Forest is Significant
The high rate of suicide in Japan is believed to be connected to the Japanese psyche. Historically suicide has been considered an honorable way to escape the shame of failure or as a sacrificial act for a larger cause; a way of taking responsibility for action. From the ancient Samurai Warriors Seppuku, the ritual suicide thought to be very honorable to the Kamikaze pilots of World War II, suicide has been widely accepted as a regular part of Japanese culture. With the worldwide financial collapse of 2008, many Japanese businessmen were unable to cope with the shame of having to face their families by being demoted or terminated from their jobs, so they choose to end their stressful lives by suicide. Unfortunately suicide is the leading cause of death for Japanese men between the ages of 20 and 44 and is beginning to look like an epidemic among teens as well. For the elderly, it’s a problem, also, as Japanese life insurance still pays out in suicide cases. In 2014, around 25,000 Japanese people committed suicide, which is an improvement over years past. The peak time for suicides occurs near their peak in March, which is the end of the Japanese financial year.
Understanding the Japanese culture and acceptance of suicide doesn’t fully explain why Aokigahara forest was singled out by those wishing to end their lives. Many people attribute it to two books published in 1960 by Japanese author Seichō Matsumoto. The first book entitled, ‘Tower of Waves’ is the story of a female ghost who had taken her life within Aokigahara forest. The second book, “Kuroi Jakai” (Black Sea of Trees) tells the romantically tragic tale of two lovers who also commit suicide within Aokigahara.
Another book, by Wataru Tsurumi published in 1993 titled “The Complete Manual of Suicide”, gave Aokigahara the tagline “the perfect place to die”. The manual is 198 of detailed pages outlining various methods of killing yourself including hanging, overdose, gas, electrocution, and more. A copy of this book has been found with the bodies of a few of the suicide victims within the forest. Obviously some of the purchasers, which number over a million, were taking the contents seriously. Additionally the forest was also reputed to be a place where Ubasute was regularly done in ancient times. People from all over Japan come to the forest to end their lives and there have been over 500 documented suicides there since the 1950’s. The Sea of Trees, although spectacular from afar, still holds the souls and bodies of many dead and the debris an account of their demise. And while the darkness still protects some of them, almost like an invisible door, the curious manage to find enough bits and pieces to satisfy their morbid curiosity.
What’s Left Behind
Their tales can be recounted by what is left behind, personal effects inexplicably scattered about the calm, cool floor of the forest. Shoes, photographs, clothes, and other seemingly random things become twisted within the roots and branches of the gnarled tree trunks providing the observer with a sense of abandonment and loss. Tents and hastily constructed structures are found, where many of those who came to end their lives lived their final days and hours, perhaps contemplating their decision before going through with it. Abandoned cars left in the parking lot, notes attached to heavy objects, nooses swaying in the wind and shoes lefts at the trail entrance are indicators that yet another soul has chosen to leave the world in the deep dark woods.