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There's something odd about trying to describe the atmosphere of a place you've never visited, but in the case of Aokigahara, Japan's notorious "suicide forest", I'm going to give it a shot. Plentiful photographs and video footage available on the Internet give a very good idea of what it's like, and anyone who has spent any time in truly ancient woodland - I mean primordial - will be able to imagine it. In the case of Aokigahara, the forest is older than memory or history records, having existed sprawled out at the base of Mount Fuji seemingly forever. Imagine dense, choking stands of trees competing for light and space. Imagine the forest floor covered with fallen branches, moss-covered rocks, lichens, barely visible tracks, creepers and flowers and spiderwebs. Deep caverns of ice and rock, sudden bare clearings, complete absence of any sound other than that of trees and birds and wind.

Aokigahara Jukai, the forest's full name, means "Sea of Green Foliage", popularly translated as "Sea Of Trees". Estimates of the forest's area vary, but the average figure seems to be roughly 3000 hectares, all of it on top of volcanic rock once emitted by Mount Fuji. The surviving area of Aokigahara represents the only land in Fuji's immediate vicinity not covered in ash or lava by its most recent eruption in 1707. The flora is dominated by white cedar, pine and boxwood, and the fauna by foxes, wild dogs and snakes.

After the first couple of miles of the official trails it is in a pristine state, apart from the occasional scraps of coloured tape left by hikers and explorers who, having dared to venture deep into the confusing woodland, want to give themselves a better-than-average chance of finding their way out again. This is, apparently, not a given. Persistent rumours of compasses malfunctioning in Aokigahara may in fact be unrelated to its "haunted" reputation - beneath the lava, huge magnetic iron deposits may plausibly be interfering with conventional magnetic compasses, causing the needles to swing randomly or point persistently in false directions. If your mobile phone has GPS, one of those "Why would I ever need that?" features, this would be a good time to use it. If you're deep in the wood and something happens to you, it's going to be near-impossible for anyone to find you, so the authorities don't encourage casual visitors to wander off the trails.

The number of people dying every year in Aokigahara has little to do with its dark and labyrinthine nature, however, and everything to do with its reputation. It's unclear exactly when it began to be associated with the dark side of life and death, but a great many folk takes and legends talk about the forest being home to various ghosts, goblins, demons, devils, wraiths, revenants and all of the innumerable ill-intentioned denizens of the collective unconscious. This is in itself nothing unusual; any ancient forest acquires an intense atmosphere and collects these kinds of stories. However, in this case they have grown into something more, a kind of feedback loop with dark places in the Japanese psyche. In the 19th century, it became a place where poor families abandoned those they could not afford to feed during the frequent famine times - usually the elderly and infirm, or very young children. Presumably not all of these died, and their presence in the forest may have contributed to tales of witches or the kind of evil children who frequently pop up in modern Japanese horror movies.

At some point, people began committing suicide in Aokigahara. No one knows how long this may have gone on, but in 1970 the police began an annual search for bodies. It had been known for some time that people were dying in the forest, as bodies and human remains would be found now and again by travellers - in fact, the annual search would usually turn up no more than a couple of bodies, with the rest (maybe 20 a year at first) being discovered accidentally over the rest of the year. In the 1990s, this number began to rise. In 1994, 57 bodies were found. In 1998, 73. In 2002, 78. Some people blame a novel by Seicho Matsumoto, called Kuroi Jukai (Black Sea of Trees). Published in 1978, it relates the story of two young lovers who commit suicide together inside Aokigahara, and although it may have contributed to the increase in the statistics, it is clearly not solely responsible. A novel published in the 1960s called The Pagoda of Waves, which was later turned into a television series, featured a woman who killed herself in Aokigahara, and it is likely that these writers were merely tapping into a common public feeling or even a hidden tradition.

All of this has changed in modern times, with the forest's reputation making it attractive to angst-ridden and depressed young people, star-crossed lovers, attention-seekers and all of the various categories of messed-up suicidal psychological makeup. A notorious Japanese bestseller, The Complete Manual of Suicide, written by Wataru Tsurumi and published in 1993, described Aokigahara as "The perfect place to die", and this has only increased the attention received by the forest. Japan's suicide rate is regarded as quite high, with a heavy toll among single young men who work extremely long office hours. In fact, one of the things that the authorities watch out for is young men in smart suits hiking along the Aokigahara trails, having neglected even to change clothes as they head straight from the office to their future graveyard.

When I say "the authorities" I really mean the leaders and law enforcement of three villages bordering the forest - Narusawa, Ashidawa and Kamikuishiki. According to Japanese law, these villages are responsible for the disposal of unidentified bodies in their area, and often bodies remain so long in Aokigahara before they are discovered that identification is either impossible or extremely difficult and costly. These guys have to find the bodies, bring them out of the forest, and dispose of them in a respectful way, either by cremation or funeral. They eventually get the money back from Yamanashi Prefecture, but the task has become so onerous that 5 million yen has to be set aside from their budget to take care of it each year. Space is also a problem - Kamikuishi village has a building which housed the remains of 119 unidentified bodies (as of 2001), while a similar one in Ashiwada contained 52, and 60 in Narusawa. The bodies have to be brought back from the forest to the local forestry station, where a room is set aside for the storage of corpses - a room with two beds, one for the corpse and one for the forestry worker who then has to sleep beside it. This is due to a Japanese superstition that a solitary corpse results in a disturbed yurei, the ghost of a prematurely ended life, which will howl all night long and possibly try to move the body to where it can be in company. The forestry workers usually gamble with each other to see who has to sleep with the corpse.

Apparently the most common method for people to end their lives here is hanging, and indeed one of the first images to pop up in a Google Image Search for Aokigahara is a photograph of a hanged corpse, to which I will not provide a link (find it yourself if you really want to). Presumably the proliferation of branches makes this the only logical choice, although minority methods include pills and alcohol, cutting one's veins or, in winter, simply lying down in the snow and not getting up again. There is also reportedly a high waterfall which makes for a popular jumping spot.

Another disturbing side effect of all this suicide is a small number of scavengers who visit the forest looking for the discarded wallets of the dead, with urban myths about vast discovered sums of money and valuable jewelry or viable credit cards and rail passes. In reality, such wealth is probably not to be found, and in any case probably not worth the inconvenience and danger of wandering the forest looking for corpses in its caves, ravines and clearings. These rumours were given weight by a 2004 film about the forest by Takimoto Tomoyuki, called Jyukai - The Sea of Trees Behind Mount Fuji (the official English title). He tells the story of four people who decide to kill themselves in Aokigahara, and along the way relates the story of finding hundreds of thousands of yen in a lost wallet while scouting the forest for shooting locations.

The police patrol the forest, looking out for suspicious travellers (such as the suited young men mentioned above, or young couples). They put up signs with messages such as "Your life is a precious gift from your parents. Think carefully about them, your brothers and sisters, or your children. Don't try to deal with your problems alone - please seek counselling." Local residents deal with the phenomenon with various combinations of despair, acceptance, black humour, compassion and fascination. On the one hand, they love the forest, which is one of the most beautiful places in Japan, residing near one of the most spiritual locations (Mount Fuji). On the other hand, they know that throughout Japan the forest is famous only for its suicides, and they are aware that that is the only reason most journalists want to talk to them. The mayor of Narusawa suggested recently, in a moment of frustration, "Maybe we should just promote ourselves as Suicide City," and you can understand his feelings. Aokigahara is second only to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge as a destination for suicides, and in the case of the bridge, 'normal' people aren't going to stay away, because, well, it's a bridge. You have to cross it to get to the other side. In Aokigahara, getting to the other side is a one-way trip.

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aokigahara
Pictures and Video: http://japan-geographic.tv/yamanashi/aokigahara.html
The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/1373287/Japan-struggles-with-soaring-death-toll-in-Suicide-Forest.html
Travel Destination: http://topadventure.net/destinations/aokigahara.html
The Complete Manual of Suicide: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Complete_Manual_of_Suicide
Japan's Harvest of Death: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/japans-harvest-of-death-635356.html
Suicide Forest: http://xmb.stuffucanuse.com/xmb/viewthread.php?tid=3879
Japanese Suicide: http://www.theforeigner-japan.com/archives/200304/news.htm
Aokigahara scavengers: http://www.wordpress.tokyotimes.org/?p=687

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