Aokigahara Forest: In the Shadow of Mt. Fuji
Holy. Cursed. Divine. Blighted. This juxtaposition of words characterizes two locations in Japan that share a remarkable relationship. Aokigahara forest, in the shadow of Mt. Fuji, rises up the side of the mountain, eventually giving way to caves and bluffs that extend above the forest. The convergence of the two iconic areas not only reveals a landscape of wonder and mysticism, it also harbors a macabre tourist attraction that has been the topic social debates, works of art, and even a self-help book on how to commit suicide.
Mt. Fuji is commonly described as the “holiest place in the world.” Aokigahara, on the other hand, is an ominous place where, with every step, a hiker might stumble across the remains of a decomposing body. It’s an interesting case study not only because of Japan’s high suicide rates, but also because no other country has such a large area specifically used as a suicide zone. The region is awash in colorful legends of Oni (local demons, devils, and trolls) and spiritual possession, and its topographical elements include icy caverns, treacherous coasts, mountain passes, and lush sound-proof forests. Aokigahara is aptly named both the “sea of trees” or “suicide forest.”
The town at the edge of the forest has a dreary look and feel, not only due to the stigma attached to the forest, but because the largest proportion of suicides comes from the town and outlying villages. Townsfolk are strictly forbidden from entering the forest due mostly to the ostracizing that comes along with “the taint of the forest.” Those who return from the forest and come back to their towns and villages are often looked upon with mistrust and fear. Many of these villages are still underdeveloped and believe in Oni and evil spirits, believing that the spirits attach themselves to those who escape the forest and then try to infect others.
Fringe tourists are not the only ones interested in this iconic location. The Japanese National Tourism Organization pushes tourists to visit Mt. Fuji and Aokigahara. The region is a cultural hot spot located less than 100 miles from Tokyo and accessible from the nation’s vast high-speed rail system. American tourists make up a significant portion of the area’s commerce throughout the year because Americans have a fascination with the morbid. This means they like the dangerous off-limit nature of the forest and the taboo that goes with it. Likewise, The Cave of Wind and the Cave of Ice are premiere areas that Japanese tourist groups frequent. Because the forest is so lush, it’s essentially soundproofed. Almost all outside noises are shut out, so only natural noises in the immediate area can be heard. Yet despite all this, the area harbors almost no wildlife, which contributes to the belief that Aokigahara is haunted.
Statistical data underscore some disturbing facts. The forest has the unfortunate distinction of being the second most popular place to commit suicide, the most popular being the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Data collected from 1998 to 2003 shows just how common suicide is inside of Aokigahara. In that span of six years, the confirmed number of suicides was 442, although researchers justifiably speculate that the number was closer to 700. The suicide rate is now at such epidemic proportions that signs in both English and Japanese are posted at the outer entrances of the forest imploring individuals to resist the urge to kill themselves. One of them reads, “Your life is something precious, given to you by your parents.” Another states, “Meditate on your parents, siblings and children once more. Do not be troubled alone.” These words speak to the Japanese heritage. To commit suicide in such a way is considered dishonorable and casts shame upon the individual’s family.
The number of deaths in the forest does not only include those lost to suicide. The area is rich in iron ore, which renders most pathfinding and communication equipment worthless. Travelers get lost and succumb to the elements. Even people experienced in land navigation get disoriented due to the wide array of terrains found around Mt. Fuji and inside Aokigahara. Moreover, some researchers believe the spirits of the deceased permeate the area and create the paranormal activity commonly experienced in and around the forest.
To better understand the complexity of Aokigahara, we must look at Mt.Fuji. The forest lies in its shadow and is affected by fluctuations caused by the mountains peak and the ocean. Mt. Fuji is one of Japan’s “three holy mountains,” along with Mt. Tate and Mt. Haku. It is the tallest of the three, measuring 3,776 meters (or 12,389 feet). An active strato-volcano that last erupted between 1707 and 1708, Fuji rests a mere 60 miles from Tokyo. In short, it’s the largest and most iconic landmark of all the Japanese islands. More than 200,000 people climb to the summit every year, mostly during the warmer months. Huts and lodges on the route up the mountain cater to tourists, provide refreshments, and offer medical supplies and rooms to rest. Many begin their climbs at night in order to experience the sunrise from the summit. After all, Japan is nicknamed “the Land of the Rising Sun.” In fact, the sunrise from the summit has a special name in Japanese culture, “Goraiko,” which translates to “the coming of the light.” Hot springs, shrines, and purification temples pepper the area.
The Mt. Fuji—Aokigahara region signifies a beautiful duality that can best be understood through personal experience. This convergence of the divine and the cursed explains why, despite the inherent dangers and local censure, the area is frequently rated a top-50 scenic destination in worldwide polls, and its popularity and intrigue have grown steadily over the past 20 years. Japan’s board of tourism even pushes the fringe tourists to visit the area to increase the influx of money into the generally rural Honshu countryside.
Many Westerners consider the Japanese tradition of Seppuku (ritualistic suicide) barbaric although some Japanese still view it as a noble action. Perhaps what’s happening in Aokigahara is a postmodern version of an old Japanese cultural standard. Regardless, Japan’s increasing suicide rate is mirrored worldwide, even in the United States. Of the country’s multitude of cultural and geographical wonders, Aokigahara and Mt. Fuji deserve special attention. They resonate at a global level, as idiosyncratic as they at first seem to be, perhaps because everyone wants to climb to exhilarating heights and, in the end, find a quiet and secluded place to visit the spirit world.
Anthony Morton is actively engaged in fitness training and plans to open his own gym where his clients are the most important part of the business.