Aokigahara: The Sad Sea of Trees
Aokigahara, also known as the Sea of Trees, is a 35 km2 forest that lies at the base of Mount Fuji in Japan. The forest contains a number of rocky, icy caverns, a few of which are popular tourist destinations. The forest, which has a historic association with demons in Japanese mythology, is a popular place for suicides; in 2002, 78 bodies were found, despite numerous signs, in Japanese and English, urging people to reconsider their actions.
Due to the wind-blocking density of the trees, and an absence of wildlife, the forest is known for being eerily quiet.
The forest floor consists primarily of volcanic rock and is difficult to penetrate with hand tools such as picks or shovels. There are also a variety of unofficial trails that are used semi-regularly for the annual “body hunt” done by local volunteers, who mark their search areas with plastic tape. The plastic tape is never removed, so a great deal of it litters the first kilometer of the forest, past the designated trails leading to tourist attractions such as the Ice Cave and Wind Cave. After the first kilometer into Aokigahara towards Mount Fuji, the forest is in a much more pristine state, with little to no litter and few obvious signs of human contact.
The forest is a popular place for suicides, reportedly the world’s second most popular suicide location after San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. This popularity is often attributed to the 1960 novel Kuroi Jukai by Seichō Matsumoto, which ends with two lovers committing suicide in the forest. However, the history of suicide in Aokigahara dates from before the novel’s publication, and the place has long been associated with death: ubasute was practiced there into the 19th century, and the forest is reputedly haunted by the ghosts of those left to die.
Since the 1950s, more than 500 people have lost their lives in the forest, mostly suicides, with an average of approximately 30 counted yearly. In 2002, 78 bodies were found within the forest, replacing the previous record of 73 in 1998. In 2003 the rate climbed to 100, and in recent years the local government has stopped publicizing the numbers in an attempt to downplay Aokigahara’s association with suicide. The high rate of suicide has led officials to place signs in the forest, in Japanese and English, urging those who have gone there in order to commit suicide to seek help and not kill themselves. The annual body search, consisting of a small army of police, volunteers and attendant journalists, began in 1970.
Aside from those intending to die there, the dense forest and rugged inaccessibility has attracted thrill seekers. Many of these hikers mark their routes by leaving colored plastic tapes behind, causing concerns from prefectural officials for the ecosystem of the forest.
In 2004, a movie about the forest was released, called Jyukai — The Sea of Trees Behind Mt. Fuji, by the director Takimoto Tomoyuki. It tells the story of four people who decide to end their lives in the forest of Aokigahara. While scouting for shooting locations, Takimoto told reporters that he found a wallet containing 370,000 yen (roughly $3,760 USD), giving rise to the popular rumor that Aokigahara is a treasure trove for scavengers. Others have claimed to have found credit cards, rail passes, and driver’s licenses. [Source]
In Aokigahara, the forest workers have it worse than the police. The workers must carry the bodies down from the forest to the local station, where the bodies are put in a special room used specifically to house suicide corpses. The forest workers then play jan-ken-pon – which English-speakers call rock, paper, scissors – to see who has to sleep in the room with the corpse. It is believed to be very bad luck if the corpse is left alone, for the “yurei” (ghost) of the suicide will scream through the night, and the body will move itself on its own.
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