Ever since I moved to Japan, I get at least a couple emails or messages each week asking about Aokigahara.
"Have you heard of Aokigahara? Are you going to go?"
"I read about this spooky forest called Aokigahara. You should totally go."
"When are you going to Aokigahara, Louise? When? When? WHEN?!"
The truth is, I've known about Aokigahara for a long time. From the moment I knew I was moving here, it has been on my "Creepy Corner List." But a funny thing happened when I actually moved to Japan and visiting became a reality: Aokigahara unnerved me.
Why? Aside from the fact that hundreds of Japanese people have ventured to Aokigahara to take their own life, and the authorities make regular sweeps of the forest to find (not look for, FIND) bodies, I worried about what it meant for ME to visit Aokigahara.
There was the worry that by visiting the site of so much sadness and desperation, I was somehow participating in a form of dark tourism. I mean, the reason I knew about Aokigahara in the first place was not because of its stunning views of Mt. Fuji, or the 10,000-year-old lava caves, it was because of the forest's reputation as a beacon for suicidal people.
I'll be honest: This is why I avoided Aokigahara for a little while and almost didn't go. As the second-most popular place in the world to commit suicide, and the "recommended" site in the controversial Japanese book The Complete Manual of Suicide, something about "Louise from Creepy Corner" visiting Aokigahara felt a little exploitative.
While I knew I wouldn't go to Aokigahara to gawk, ghost hunt, or search for bodies, I wanted to clarify for myself how I would approach a visit to the forest. I decided to follow the Japanese government's lead.
By this I mean acknowledging the history and reality of Aokigahara, but not making Aokigahara just the "suicide forest." There's no hiding from the fact that Aokigahara has a reputation, but I decided to try and not let that reputation color my visit. While armed with the knowledge that more than 500 people have committed suicide in Aokigahara, commonly by hanging or poisoning, I would just take the forest at face value and be open to the experience, come what may.
So on a bright, cold day with my husband and friend Joy in tow, I set out to Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mt. Fuji.
First impressions of Kawaguchiko (the lakeside resort and residential area near Aokigahara), Mt. Fuji, and Aokigahara itself?
Breathtaking. Unreal. That iconic image of rural Japan with majestic Mt. Fuji keeping watch in the background? Better than that.
Arriving via bus at one of the Aokigahara trailheads (I should note that the whole area was very easy to navigate, and all the locals were very friendly), we started into the "sea of trees," and headed toward the thousands-of-years-old Narusawa Ice Cave.
Aokigahara was dense. If you try to stare 10 feet beyond the path into the trees, the effect is dizzying — just leaves blurring into tree trunks, canceling out daylight. It was very sunny outside the forest, but we all commented on the gloom once we were sufficiently inside. I could completely understand all the signs along the trail warning not to deviate from the path.
As we hiked further in, our chatter turning to concentrating on not slipping on the icy trail, I suddenly became aware of how quiet the forest was. There was no breeze, no sound of woodland creatures. Aside from the occasional crow cawing in the distance, and the muffled sound of snow falling from tree branches, Aokigahara was nearly silent.
Letting Joy and my husband walk a distance ahead of me, I stood still in one spot and listened hard. The moments between the sounds of life felt like chasms of emptiness. I cannot emphasize enough the absence of sound. My breath sounded like a roar.
It was a fairly windy day; when I first noticed the soundlessness, we couldn't have been more than a quarter mile from the parking lot and gift shop. We all later commented that we had each unintentionally reduced our usual boisterous banter to whispers in the forest.
I later learned that this silence was not all in my head. Due to the density of the tree growth preventing much wind from penetrating the forest, and the lack of almost all wildlife, Aokigahara is notoriously devoid of sound.
As much as I didn't want it to get to me, the effect was chilling. I have never experienced a natural environment that felt so unnaturally still.
I couldn't help but think of the reports of mysterious screams or cries that locals claim come from the forest at night. As well as having a reputation for suicide, the forest has a long association with the supernatural. Tales of spirits and demons roaming the forest predate the accounts of suicide. Some say the victims of ubasute, the old custom of leading the elderly to a forest and leaving them to die of starvation or the elements, became "vengeful" ghosts who "prowl" the forest.
It's also been said that the forest "pulls" people to it. Those who are depressed or distraught have commented that the forest "calls" to them.
While I can neither confirm or deny this, I will say that despite being with two of the people that I most love and trust in the world, I felt my anxiety randomly spike a couple times on our hike. It might have been the oppressive feel of the forest or it might have been my own mind playing tricks on me, but I could definitely understand the effect Aokigahara might have on a person teetering on the brink.
We pressed on through the snowy forest, passing very few signs of people having walked before us. The park service works very hard to maintain the pristine beauty of the forest, picking up the shoes, scribbled-on pieces of paper, even dolls that people leave behind for one reason or another.
When we were in the deepest part of our hike, I saw a shoe peeking out of the frozen ground a few feet off of the path, and a tin can with writing on it nailed to a tree. Aside from that, any remnants from other visitors had been gathered by the park service or buried under the snow.
When we finally reached the Ice Cave, on the edge of the forest, we encountered this large sign at the trailhead:
Loosely translated it says:
Let's think once more about the life you were given, your parents, your brothers and sisters, and children. Don't suffer alone first please contact somebody. (And a phone number for a help hotline)
This same sign appeared at the entrance to various trails throughout the forest. It is a grim reminder that while the Japanese government is trying to change the public perception of Aokigahara, they cannot fully ignore what goes on in the forest.
From there we went into the Narusawa Ice Cave (formed c.864) that, while not spooky, was SPECTACULAR. Deep down into ground, the cave system hovers around zero degrees celsius all year round. Ice pillars, ice columns, and sheets of ice filled the cave, making for more "I can't believe this is real" photo ops.
After leaving the Ice Cave, we got back on the forest trail and headed back to our bus stop. It was darker now, making the forest seem that much more foreboding. Lagging behind due to my STUPID shoe choice (the closest thing to athletic shoes I have here are Converse sneakers), I noticed the hairs on my neck standing up from time to time.
I mostly chalk this up to being easily spooked, but there were more than a few instances where I stopped and glanced behind me. It could have been the silence and my own shuffling echoing against the frozen ground and trees, but at least once I really thought some other hikers were coming up behind me. There was nobody there.
Oh, Aokigahara, what tricks are you playing on me?
We made it to the Wind Cave, explored it briefly (also AMAZING), and exited the forest with the remarkably cheerful "cave ticket taker" calling goodbye to us. We left Aokigahara and Kawaguchiko in surprisingly good spirits.
I'm still mentally grappling with my visit. Did anything "spooky" or "supernatural" happen? No. Was the forest especially terrifying? No. Did it surprise me? Yes.
There was a heaviness, a solemnity to Aokigahara that the stories and pictures didn't quite capture. Candidly, I fully expected to walk through Aokigahara without a chill or a goose bump in sight — I thought this post might just be all "myths and legends." But that was not the case.
I don't have any tangible evidence to offer you of the mysterious or the supernatural that may or may not exist within Aokigahara. And I don't like summing up an experience with just "a feeling" — especially an experience like this one. But to me, Aokigahara feels touched by death.
This is one of those experiences that had much more of an impact on me than I thought it would. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to go to Aokigahara, but truth be told, I don't know if I want to go back there anytime soon.