Aokigahara Forest

The first thing you’ll notice in Aokigahara is the still silence. The foliage here is unusually dense, it grows on a bed of nutrient-rich lava from a 10-day 864 Mt. Fuji eruption, and its lush expanse blocks outside sound. There is an uncommon lack of wildlife, so even the rustle of scurrying creatures or trills of a birdsong is rare. Most of the time all that can be heard is the crunch of your own feet.

Mt.Fuji and deep forest
If you are indecisive when you go into Aokigahara, you bring a long ribbon of colored tape with you so you can find your way back. Others, however, wander into the sea of trees until they are utterly lost. The high concentration of iron ore in the soil renders compasses, cell phones, and GPS devices unusable, and the dizzying and deep sameness of Aokigahara can confuse the most seasoned hiker or camper.

A New Legend for Aokigahara

While some might find themselves on a frantic search for an exit, most people who do not leave Aokigahara came there to die. While the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is the first most popular suicide destination, Japan’s Aokigahara is a close second. Ancient tales of demons have given way to a new legend: those who believe in the paranormal say the trees are haunted by the spirits of those who departed there. They may not be haunted in that sense, but the lives and deaths of the hundreds who have chosen to end their lives in this silent beauty certainly mark the place, both in the stories in our minds and with their traces of physical reminders. They nail suicide notes to the bark, they leave their shoes there and, if they’re not discovered for a while, they leave their bones.

“Your life is a precious gift”

Entrance of Aokigahara Forest
There are signs posted in Japanese and English at several entrances to the forest with messages entreating troubled people to seek help. These signs ask you to think of your family: “Your life is a precious gift from your parents,” a reminder that may backfire in some cases. While American and other Western cultures celebrate the idea of the individual, Japanese culture puts higher demands of conformity and duty to family on a person’s shoulders. This sense of togetherness can provide support, but it can make a person feel even more alienated if they feel like a failure or struggle with depression. The idea of depression being accepted as a health issue is new in Japan, and there is still a great stigma around it. Tourists often visit here, usually Americans, to see the famed “suicide forest” for themselves, but even stepping into the forest can be a bold, taboo, act for a Japanese person. Sometimes those who are known to have entered the forest and returned are seen as “marked” by their community, possibly because it an admission of depression and dark thoughts.

Suicide has a complicated history in Japan. In 1180, the concept of Seppuku, a kind of honorable, ritualistic suicide performed by samurais either to avoid capture or to atone for a battle defeat. Honor suicides also became a way to seek atonement for more domestic sins like infidelity. Suicide over emotional and mental distress, however, is often seen as dishonorable, so those who come to die in Aokigahara bring with them to the quiet forest their own sense of disabling silence. Depression is a common experience. Although being able to talk to others about it is not a cure, it is a remedy for the alienation that can compound its deafening and crippling grip on the mind and heart.

In 2002, VICE filmed one of geologist Azusa Hayono’s annual trips into Aokigahara. Azusa has studied the terrain of the forest for over 30 years, investigating not just the land, but the landscape of human despair. In his career Hayono has discovered bodies, suicide notes, discarded possessions, and memorials. Sometimes he comes across people who may be in a bad place and asks them if they need help. His message is simple and clear: we are not alone in this world, no matter how much it can feel that way.

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From the VICE documentary

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