Our Journey to Suicide Forest, Aokigahara, Japan
By the roots of Mt. Fuji lies a special forest, full of myths and sadness but at the same time extremely silent and graceful. This is Aokigahara, otherwise known as Suicide Forest. Only second to Golden Gate Bridge, it is the most popular suicide spot on earth. Yearly an estimated 50-100 people walk in the forest and never return.
There are a few reasons for the Aokigahara’s popularity but most people site Seichō Matsumoto’s novel from the 1960′, Tower of Waves, which follows a young couple who decide to end their live in the forest due to social unacceptance. The novel is thought to have caused a significant rise in suicide numbers in Aokigahara. Long before the novel was published, legend says that Aokigahara was a place where Japanese carried their elders to let them pass away during times of hardship (hunger and draught), a tradition known as “ubasute”.
The forest is also extremely dense making it dead silent and it’s easy to get lost even using the designated tracks. Many say that regular compasses are useless due to high content of magnetic iron in the lava grounds. Some might feel comfort in taking their last breath in such isolation, with little chance of ever being found.
Copyright: TANAKA Juuyoh
Suicides in Japan
In Japan suicide has never been ethically or religiously forbidden, nor illegalized, it may even be culturally accepted. Suicide was considered honorable during the Samurai period, where one would perform “Hara-kiri” or “Seppuku” instead of falling into enemy hands, a ritual suicide by self-disembowelment (cutting your belly open).
Suicide rates in Japan are one of the highest among developed nations. One common reason is financial anxiety. Japan was once known for lifetime jobs, but people in their 30’ and 40’ are now struggling for a stable work career. People have a hard time to express their feelings and suicide may be their way out instead of facing friends, family or the financial consequences. Depression as a result of overworking is a notable factor as well. The Japanese society places a strong importance on hard work and discipline and it’s probably the only country in the world which has a word for dying from overwork, “Karōshi” (usually heart attacks and strokes due to stress and starvation diet in apparently healthy individuals).
Click below to watch an interesting documentary of the forest
[videos file=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FDSdg09df8″ width=”700″ height=”400″][/videos]
The forest is not only famous for macabre; the Wind Cave and Ice Cave are a reasonable draw for local and international tourists. However some come there seeking adventures and thrill. I guess our reasons were mixed, with the addition of getting a glance at Mt. Fuji from a distance, Japan’s signature mountain.
Getting to Aokigahara can be a bit tricky as you have to mix trains with infrequent and long bus rides. We jumped onboard one of the Shinkansen trains where we used our JR pass from Kyoto to Fujinomya (switching in Shizoka and Fuji). Where we would find a bus to take us to the forest.
Typical Japanese train snacks for breakfast
In Fujinomya we went to the tourist information to get info regarding the bus timetables. The lady at the desk turned pale when she heard where we were going and tried her best to convince us not to go. Like her, many are superstitions of bad spirits and ghosts in the forest. She finally told us which bus we had to catch and where we should go out. We had to tell the driver we were going to the Fugaku Wind Cave. Apparently, we heard that some drivers would keep on driving even though someone had hit the stop button at this point. They simply don’t want to feel responsible if a certain someone would be feeling suicidal.
After we got out of the bus we found a trail leading into the forest. What we noticed at first were signs with helpline numbers and messages urging you to think of your friends and family. Hopefully these signs provide some people with second thoughts who return back home safely. After walking for a few minutes we realised that we were completely alone. It is difficult to describe how dense the forest really is. The sun hardly gets through the trees and same goes for sound. It was dead silent. We noticed how decomposed/rotten the forest is; large pieces of logs easily crack under your feet.
“Your life is a precious gift from your parents! Please think about your parents, siblings and children.
Don’t keep it to yourself. Talk about your troubles.”
“Contact the Suicide Prevention Association and the suicide hotline number”
Innocent Ása during our first minutes in the forest
Midway we came across a sidetrack with a “No Entry” sign, which clearly had the opposite effect on us. We felt like little kids doing something forbidden.
The forbidden track
This is one creepy forest!
After a while we noticed a lot of plastic tape leading off the trail in all directions deeper into the forest. We followed a red piece of tape for a couple of hundred meters laying a jacket and an umbrella as breadcrumbs to find our way back since the line of tape was patchy at times. We could really understand how easy it is to get lost here. We wondered how many go off track with suicidal thoughts but decide not to go through with it and can’t find their way back. Some of the less determined ones bring tape along for this reason.
Tape from possible suicide victims leading off the trail
Others might use the tape so their bodies will be discovered by forest workers and police who comb the area for suicidal victims every month. It must be a difficult job, we thought. The bodies are all brought to a specific cabin where they are kept at first and the workers play “rock, paper, scissors” to see who has to stay in the room with the bodies overnight. It is believed to be bad luck for the ghost (“yurei”) of the victim if it’s left alone.
We kept on going, with our hearts pumping, knowing that we might face something gruesome. Luckily we didn’t, but we did see a lot of evidence after suicide victims; beer cans and bottles of sake, pill containers, clothes, nail clippers, purse, lunch boxes and suicide notes.
Handwritten suicide note
Personal belongings of a broken soul
At one point we stumbled upon a hanging rope from a tree. It was both difficult and sad to experience all this evidence of desperate helpless individuals, knowing that some of them had ended their life here. At the same time we could somewhat understand how one could see this as an ideal place to take their last breath; the dense forest and lava rocks block all sound from the outside world and natural decomposers, fungi, make sure you quickly become part of mother earth. Some might feel comfort in this, becoming one with nature again, in peace and quiet.
Leftovers from a hanging rope
Back with the last bus
As dawn was closing we decided to head back before it would get too dark. Eventually getting out of the forest came with such a relief. We caught the last bus back to Fujinomya, both of us a bit freaked out and unbalanced after our bizarre day in Aokigahara.