Aokigahara: More than just the ‘suicide forest’

by Justin Bennett / 19 January, 2018

It's known as a 'suicide forest', but Justin Bennett found Aokigahara's quiet beauty outweighed its infamous reputation.

Each year, large numbers of people choose to end their lives at Aokigahara, known to foreigners as the notorious ‘suicide forest’ or the Sea of Trees.

Over the years many western movies have glamourised the location, such as the 2016 American supernatural horror movie ‘The Forest’ about a young woman who travelled to Aokigahara against the recommendations of her friends in search of her missing twin sister.

On New Year’s Eve, Youtube star Logan Paul became the latest offender when he carelessly posted now-deleted clickbait footage of an apparent suicide victim he found there – he has since apologised and been punished by Youtube for his mistake.  While many are rightfully outraged over his portrayal of Aokigahara and his disrespect for the dead, he has hardly been alone over the years in sensationalising this issue.

Many have tried to cash in on the forests reputation.

Aokigahara sits at the base of Japan's Mt Fuji. Photo / Justin Bennett

Aokigahara, with Mt Fuji in the background. Photo / Justin Bennett

Aokigahara has long been a destination for thrill seeking tourists and curious westerners, but for most its astonishing natural wonder gets brushed aside and reduced to just two words: Suicide Forest.

Japan was ranked 26th globally among age-adjusted suicide rates in 2015, according to the World Health Organization. Overall, there were 15.4 suicides per 100,000 population, which breaks down to 9.2 for women and 21.7 for men.

Sun shines through the dense trees in the forest. Photo / Justin Bennett

Sun shines through the dense forest. Photo / Justin Bennett

Where is Aokigahara?

Aokigahara is a large dense 30 sq km forest at the base of Mount Fuji about 120km from Tokyo. It’s filled with densely twisted towering trees and several caves from the Fujisan major eruption back in 864 CE.

Historically, Aokigahara was said to be haunted by yurei, or ghosts from Japanese mythology. It's become known as one of the world's most popular suicide sites in recent years - after an increasing number of hangings and drug overdoses in the area which tend to spike each March, at the end of Japan’s financial year.

Authorities and volunteers frequently sweep through the forest, assisting those in trouble and removing any bodies. Security cameras have also been installed in an attempt to keep an eye on those going in and out.

Police records showed that 247 people attempted suicide in 2010 in the forest – and 54 of them died, according to the Japan Times. The Japanese government has increasingly tried not to publicise the deaths in recent times in a bid not to draw any more attention to the site and to try and change its image

Bones lie on the floor of the forest. Photo / Justin Bennett

Animal bones found on the forest floor. Photo / Justin Bennett

The sound of silence

Driving to Aokigahara from Tokyo is nothing short of majestic, long rolling landscapes, mountains and an ever-growing presence of Mount Fuji which captures the horizon.

We visited on January 6th, a few days after Logan Paul. It was a beautiful sunny - but cold - winter's day.

The forest is captivating and completely silent – devoid of any sound due to the density of tree growth. There are lots of visitors, many families, hikers all heading along the hiking trail. It’s very peaceful, but at the same time you feel a compassion and a sadness knowing that there are still people who visit with the intention of not returning.

Inside Aokigahara's ice caves. Photo / Justin Bennett

If you stare ahead beyond the path into the dense distance of trees, the effect blurs all into one, it’s easy to see how someone could quickly get lost deviating from the path.

It's been said that the forest "pulls" people to it. Those who are depressed or distraught have commented that the forest "calls" to them.

There are, of course, restricted areas which are closed off to the public and clearly sign-posted, the majority of those found tend to be in these areas. The Japanese tourism agency warns visitors to stay on the designated trails.

An empty seat in a quiet forest. Photo / Justin Bennett

The area also is home to the Narusawa Ice Cave, a wind cave and bat cave. Deep down in the ground with ice pillars, columns and plenty of Instagram-rich photo opportunities. These lava caves were formed back in 864 AD and are a geological wonder regarded as one of the tourist spots within the Fuji Five Lakes area that can be visited all year round.

Overall the forest, despite its eerie reputation, is just a forest. Nothing overly spooky or supernatural happened, although it was surprisingly peaceful to experience.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

1737, Need to talk? Free call or text anytime for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email talk@youthline.co.nz or online chat

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

What's Up – 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds). Phone counselling is available Monday to Friday, midday–11pm and weekends, 3pm–11pm. Online chat is available 7pm–10pm daily.

Kidsline – 0800 54 37 54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years of age. Open 24/7.

thelowdown.co.nz – or email team@thelowdown.co.nz or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

If it is an emergency or you, or someone you know, is at risk call 111.

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