A Day In the Aokigahara Forest

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 Note: I want to mention that this post deals with the topic of suicide. Mental illness is a disease that comes with an unfair stigma unlike any other disease. Those that suffer, do so silently and often the way out is of their own accord. Please, if you feel this way talk, reach out and ask for help. It always gets better. Always.

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Over the years I have visited many spooky places across the country and all but a couple have left something to be desired. I am a big optimist and fall for folklore and urban legends because I want to believe. I love the stories of the lone tragic dead bride who is cursed to wander the halls of a Holiday Inn for all eternity. So many places jump on the ghost story wagon and when you’re a gullible tourist, like myself, you should walk away disappointed when you don’t get the willies even though almost all the stories are greatly exaggerated.

There is a place, however, which exceeds any folklore or spooky yarn. It is so dark and disturbing, Hollywood and authors alike have tried to capture the essence of this destination but have not even touched what I experienced. Even the Japanese people themselves do not talk about it and if you, as an outsider, bring this into conversation you will be met with judging eyes and uncomfortable body language. This is the place people enter and they do not plan to come out. It is said to be cursed and full of vengeful spirits that float on the periphery of the eye to lure visitors to their doom. It’s name is the Aokigahara Forest but is also called the Sea of Trees, Sea of Forest, Japan’s Demon Forest but is most commonly referred to as the Japanese Suicide Forest.

I spent an entire day inside this forest and even though I successfully found my way out, it has not left me. I do not believe it ever will.

The dark history of this forest goes back to almost twelve hundred years to a period of famine in Japan. To reduce the number of mouths to feed, families would abandon their elderly in the forest knowing they would have no way of finding their way out and would eventually die of starvation or exposure. In the sixties, a the book Kuroi Kaiju (Black Sea of Trees) became a very popular story which ends with the two lovers in the story committing suicide inside the forest. This is speculated to be the reason many people sought the forest to be a final destination and the book, itself, has been found many times inside the forest.

The Japanese government would post the numbers of deaths inside the Aokigahara Forest but after the financial crisis of 2008, there was a dramatic spike that only increased over the following years. After 2013, it was decided the stats were not to be published for fear it would only draw more attention to this macabre destination. As of this year the average is thought to be as many as two per day.

The Aokigaraha Forest is located at the base of Mt. Fuji and has the most insane topography because the floor is formed from lava flows from the volcano. The trees are lush and grow in twisted, odd formations and thick moss covers almost everything. It is so dense that in the middle of the afternoon it can feel like the middle of the night so shadows will not cast. And the sound! I have never to an outside location where your ears feel almost compressed and it feels absolutely deafening. Your breath sounds like waves of noise and you have to stop to get your heartbeat under control just to listen for anything in the woods. I can understand the what those who come here might feel. The forest surrounds you and every sense you have is taken over.

As you will see in the video below, I get turned around a few times. It is about fourteen miles of forest and most of it is almost impossible to get to. If you leave the path it can be extremely dangerous because of the lava flow rock floor, caves and deep pockets are everywhere. You could be walking through and drop into a cavern, never to be heard from again. Also, hundreds of years of fallen foliage makes traversing the area a knee-deep slog what could hide almost anything underneath. I left the trail only a few times but just feet away, I lost my orientation and came close to my way losing the trail. The forest and trees have a way of wanting to keep you.

I did my best to keep track of where I was through simple land navigation tricks like measuring my stride and footsteps to figure out how far in I was and how long it would take to get back. The trail map, however, was definitely not calibrated to exact distance so a few hours in, it was clear I really turned around. To add a little stress to the situation, I had a bus home scheduled for 7pm. By the end of the day it was a race to not only get out of the forest but get out as close to where I started from. Not easy when all the signs are in Japanese characters.

There were times when I could not tell if my mind, ears or eyes were playing tricks on me. I saw absolutely no one the entire time I was in the forest. There were no hikers, workers or even the tourists with a curiosity like myself. I moved with a quickness to see as much of the forest as possible in the six hours I was in but occasionally I stopped dead in my tracks because I heard people having conversations off the trail. Knowing the dangers of leaving the trail I would quickly look in the direction I thought the voices were coming from and there was nothing. This seemed to happen more frequently the longer I was in the forest.

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They say, if you follow ropes in the Aokigahara, it will lead to something. It does. I made the decision not to publish completely what I found to show respect for whoever was there, the Japanese culture and the topic of suicide. I did not find a body but I did see an abandoned tent, blankets, empty pill cases and looped rope tied high in a tree. It was the most sinking feeling of utter hopelessness I have ever felt. And I don’t think that feeling will leave me for a long time. That’s all I have to say about that.

Eventually I made it out of the forest, though it was a little stressful finding the right stop that still had an active bus associated with it. When I realized the one I waited for was not an active stop, I had to go back into the forest to make it a stop that had a bus. That’s when my mind was the most paranoid and I really felt hundreds of eyes on me as I moved with a quickness to escape the dark. I can still distinctly remember hearing people out there but I know there were none.

Well, spoiler alert, I survived. I found my way out and made it home but even as I write this, I know that forest came with me. I think about it all the time and the feelings that permitted the trees, the ground and the silent air. Even I write this, I can hear that split second chattering out beyond the trails. There is something there. That I know.

I kept this video pretty raw because any music or editing would detract from what was happening. I am a bit annoyed by the GoPro Hero 5 I was using because apparently there is an audio port I couldn’t see so there is a lot of accidental finger rubbing over the microphone. To be honest, that camera is a pretty big disappointment for the cost.

I hope you get at least 1% of what I experienced from this video. It’s shaky and raw but hopefully it can bring you a little closer to the Sea of Trees: The Aokigahara Forest. With much respect to the culture of the Japanese people, thank you.