October 26, 2018

Reclaiming Aokigahara

Found at the foot of Mt. Fuji, the ever-serene Aokigahara forest is in need of shedding its stigma of being Japan's so-called "suicide forest."

Lake Saikyo, Mt. Fuji and the Aokigahara forest in Yamanashi Prefecture
Maybe if more people actually visited the Sea of Trees, as opposed to just imagining it based on multimedia, it would help dispel some of the spooky notions that are floating around out there.

—Beyond Death & Pain: The Truth About Japan’s ”Suicide Forest”

“No! No! No! Nooooo!” I shouted while banging my fists on the desk. I was visibly getting heated. Those sitting nearby me in the office looked on with bewildered amusement. It was far from the weirdest thing they had witnessed me doing but I am sure it still came as quite the surprise. You see, it was early 2018 and I had just heard the daily news. Some jackass YouTuber by the name of Logan Paul with millions of followers (whom I had thankfully been ignorant of up to this point) was going viral after displaying a dead body he had stumbled across in the Aokigahara forest. “Great. Just what we needed…” I lamented, this time to myself. I certainly had my work cut out for me if I was going to successfully rebrand this place.

What’s that? You haven’t heard of Aokigahara before? I’m not surprised. The name is not very well known overseas. After all, in the west, most people recognize Aokigahara by a different moniker, Japan’s so-called “Suicide Forest.” In addition to the aforementioned stupidity, the tragic legend of Aokigahara has recently been the subject of many documentaries including one by VICE. The publicity has spawned a sort of morbid obsession with the site, much to the chagrin of the local tourism authority. A quick search in YouTube for Aokigahara will uncover a number of videos looking to ride on the coattails of bigger creators. To be honest, it’s a real mess right now.

How did Aokigahara get branded as the “Suicide Forest” to begin with? Well, as these things go, there’s a good deal of truth to the stigma. Every year, many a wayward soul enters Aokigahara’s thick canopy only to never return. Why people choose to take their lives here is a bit of a mystery. Throughout much of history, Aokigahara has been the subject of ghost stories and other grim acts (such as abandoning the elderly to die). Moreover, tales of forbidden love that end in suicide echo throughout the ages. This all said, perhaps no work is more responsible for solidifying Aokigahara’s reputation than the controversial Complete Manual of Suicide by Wataru Tsurumi in 1993.

Now don’t get me wrong; Aokigahara is certainly an eerie place. As anyone who has visited can attest, the forest redefines the very meaning of silence. The overgrowth is literally too thick for even background noises like the rustling of the wind. Formed out of the devastation caused by Mt. Fuji’s eruption in 864, this mangled wood is a miracle unto itself. In a seemingly impossible manner, Aokigahara’s twisted trees surprisingly grow out of the hardened volcanic rock. This gives the forest an otherworldly vibe which feels like it was ripped straight from the pages of Lord of the Rings or something. Truth be told, I was half expecting an Uruk-hai attack or something…

The “sea of trees” at Yamanashi Prefecture’s Aokigahara forrest

As if the torment landscape didn’t do enough to set the scene, the dense tangle of trees means that it’s incredibly easy to get lost in Aokigahara. In fact, the timbers are so closely knit the wind barely even makes a sound. While there are some well defined trails throughout the forest, straying from these almost certainly leads to trouble. What’s more, the presence of high amounts of volcanic rock means that compasses and other such tools fail to function properly. Think Google Maps will be able to help? Think again! Cell phone reception is also largely nonexistent in this neck of the woods.

Aokigahara is a stark contrast from the rest of Japan. Clearly, the forest is one of only a few places in modern Japan that has remained untouched by human hands. Obsessions with the macabre aside then, why would one want to visit this seemingly haunted wood? Perhaps a clue resides in Aokigahara’s full name. You see, the Japanese all know this primeval forest by the name “Aokigahara Jukai” or just even “Jukai” for short. When translated to English, this epithet means something akin to “Aokigahara’s Sea of Trees.” This title is far more inviting than the “Suicide Forest” and better suits this majestic manifestation of nature’s beauty.

If the term “Sea of Trees” has piqued your interest, you’re not alone. After all, Aokigahara is a mystical place that has held spiritual significance for centuries. There are few places on earth that spot a biome similar to that of Aokigahara. Sadly, the “Sea of Trees” is desperately in need of a rebrand. For one, more people kill themselves at locations like the Golden Gate Bridge than Aokigahara. As such the “Suicide Forest” label really needs to go. After all, we don’t call the famous San Francisco landmark “Death’s Bridge” so why call continue to call Aokigahara by it’s unwanted nickname? It just doesn’t make any sense.

Ultimately, the process of dispelling the stigma of the “Suicide Forest” requisites getting more people to visit this marvel. While I don’t have even a fraction of the influence of the previously mentioned YouTubing jerk, hopefully the following guide will help assist more people in making the trek to Aokigahara. I’ll be proposing a half day itinerary that will take you through the “Sea of Trees” while also hitting up all three of the natural caves along the way — more on that in a bit.

Getting to Aokigahara

A train bound for Kawaguchiko Station in Yamanashi Prefecture with Mt. Fuji in the background

OK, let’s pause for a second to talk about how to get to Aokigahara first. This legendary forest resides to the north of Mt. Fuji in Yamanashi Prefecture. Situated at the base of the iconic mountain’s base, this means that Aokigahara is not reachable solely by train. As such, your first destination will need to be Kawaguchiko Station which is serviced by the Fujikyu railway as well as a number of highway buses. There are many ways to reach Kawaguchiko so be sure to check out routes on Hyperdia or a comparable service. Note that those who are adverse to making multiple connections and have some coin to spend should opt for the express trains when possible to save time.

Anyway, once you’re in Kawaguchiko, you’ll need to hop on one of the local buses to get to Aokigahara. Before doing so, I highly suggest you snag an all-you-can-ride bus pass. While these are an investment of 1,500 yen up front, the two-day pass will ultimately end up being cheaper in the long run. These can be purchased directly in front of Kawaguchiko Station. Just exit the station and make a hard right. You’ll find a small kiosk vendor where the passes can be acquired. Kawaguchiko is an area that is pretty popular with tourists so you can expect a modicum of English ability.

Aokigahara’s Sea of Trees

The dense trees of Yamanashi Prefecture’s infamous Aokigahara forest

Got your two-day bus pass? Good. The next step will be taking the Green Omni Bus Line to the so-called Saiko Bat Cave (Saiko Komori Ana) bus stop. This will be the first attraction along my proposed itinerary and is also worth checking out in and of itself. The cave is named after its former winter inhabitants and consists of nearly 350 meters of large chambers and narrow tunnels. Like Aokigahara’s Wind and Ice Caves, these caves were formed following past Mt. Fuji eruptions. Entry will run you 350 yen but you can get a discount if you have the two-day bus pass. Spelunking newbies are reminded to watch their heads. There’s a reason that helmets are provided…

Once you’re done with the Saiko Bat Cave, it will be time to venture into the “Sea of Trees” itself. You’ll find the entrance to the Aokigahara trails on the far end of the Saiko Bat Cave’s parking lot. Once you set foot inside the forest, you’ll be enveloped in a deafening silence. It’s a surreal and peaceful experience that is akin to falling into a deep meditative state. I don’t think I have ever been as content with myself as when I was trekking through Aokigahara. While the trees do take on a dark and gnarled look, that’s about the extent of the morbidity you’ll encounter, much to the dismay of those looking to be infamous on YouTube.

Soon after finding the path, you’ll find encounter a fork in the road. Here, you’ll want to take the right hand option (the left hand trail just takes you back to the Saiko Bat Cave). Throughout the forest there are numbered posts along the path to keep you on track. No. 1 is the start of the trail at the Saiko Bat Cave and your first goal will be the intersection at No. 8. This can be reached in about 20–30 minutes depending on your fitness levels. Just be weary of your steps. The forest bed is wrought with many moss-covered tree roots and gaping holes within the hardened lava. Remember, it’s going to be hard to call for help if you injure yourself here.

If my warnings of poor cellular signal and malfunctioning compares was not enough to deter you, let me put it more simply: DO NOT STRAY FROM THE PATH. Moreover, in the rare case you encounter a trail of string or tape, DO NOT FOLLOW IT. It never leads to anything good. Like in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, this is a method that wayward souls use to find their way back should they decide to remain among the living. Despite all I’ve written thus far, the fact remains that many people take their lives here every year. Chances are you won’t encounter anything like this but just in case, stay on the damn path…

Anyway, eventually you’ll find yourself at the No. 8 point (here’s a shot I snagged of the map). This is a major intersection that lies deep in the forest. Here you’re going to want to turn left in the direction of the Fugaku Wind Cave. Soon thereafter, the path will yet again split into two divergent paths at point No. 9. Those eager to spend more time in the forest will want to opt for the left hand path whereas those looking to truncate their journey will want to take the right hand path. Either option will eventually take you to the same spot so be sure to assess time and energy levels before making a decision! Note that if you take the shorter option, you’ll visit the Fugaku Wind Cave first then the Narusawa Ice Cave whereas the longer option uses the reverse order.

Of course, as long time readers should expect by now, I’m going to go ahead and suggest the longer of the two routes. The reason is that those who put in a little bit of extra effort and opt for the more arduous of the two routes will be rewarded with the obscure Ryugu Lava Caves. This set of three natural alcoves houses a shrine to the Ryujin, the dragon god. Descending the stairs, I couldn’t help but indulging in nerdy, dragon slayer fantasies. It’s a real treat for my fellow gamers out there…

Crystals inside one of the caves near Yamanashi Prefecture’s Aokigahara forest

Nerdy distractions aside, let’s get back to the trail. Our next destination, assuming you took the longer of the two routes, is the Narusawa Ice Cave. Formed when Mt. Fuji erupted in 864, temperatures in this cave constantly stay below the point at which water freezes (yes, even during the brutal summer humidity). Historically, these caves were used as a natural refrigeration to prevent growth of the cocoons, promote budding, and preserve the quality of seeds. These days, if you venture all the way down during autumn or winter, you’ll be greeted by the site of massive pillars of solid ice. It’s quite the site to behold! Like with the Saiko Bat Cave, entry to the Narusawa Ice Cave will run you 350 yen but you can get a discount if you have your bus pass on you. Just be sure to watch your head!

Following the Narusawa Ice Cave, it will be time for you to make your way to the last stop on my itinerary, the Fugaku Wind Cave. This attraction can be reached in a number of different ways. If you’re already beginning to feel fatigued, the easiest option is of course the bus (you do have an all-you-can-ride pass after all). Alternatively, those with a little more spunk can opt to hoof it. Here, there are two options; you can either take the trail that goes back into the “Sea of Trees” or you can walk along the road. The choice is really up to you. Do note however that this section of Aokigahara is a popular trek and therefore much more likely to be populated with other people.

The Fugaku Wind Cave is very similar to the Narusawa Ice Cave. Like with its frozen neighbor, the Fugaku Wind Cave was used to naturally keep silkworms and seeds cool during the humid summers. Allegedly, this process continued all the way up to the beginning of the Showa period (1926–1989). Though not quite as cool as the Narusawa Ice Cave at only 3℃, the cave is still a welcomed reprieve on a warm day. As with the two other caves, entry will run you 350 yen but you can save 50 yen by showing your bus pass. Note that of the three caves, this one is the most welcoming to those with mobility issues.

Attractions Near Aokigahara

Mt. Fuji and Kawaguchiko’s picturesque Chureito Pagoda in Yamanashi Prefecture

When it comes to add-ons to an Aokigahara itinerary, you, the reader, are really spoiled for choice. The entirety of the Kawaguchiko area is chock full of enough attractions to keep you busy for several days. From the stunning Chureito Pagoda pictured above, to Mt. Fuji itself, there are endless options to choose from so be sure to get your money’s worth of that two-day bus pass! Indeed, the area really deserves a guide of its own at some point. For now though, you’ll need to settle for what our good old friend Google serves up.

One option that I would like to highlight is Saiko Iyashi-no-Sato. This charmingly rustic locale occupies the site of a former farming village on the western shores of Lake Saiko. In 1966, the entirety of the location was washed away in a landslide. Thereafter, the village was reconstructed into an open air museum where visitors can investigate the local culture and purchase unique handicrafts. The site now consists of more than twenty houses that have been converted into shops, restaurants, museums, and galleries featuring specialized crafts.

Seeing the Saiko Iyashi-no-Sato is located on the way back from Aokigahara, it makes for a good way to wrap up the day. Note that entry will run you another 350 yen but you can save yet another 50 yen by showing your two-day bus pass.

Until next time travelers…