The sea of trees

Summer has finally kicked in, and we’re on a trip towards the five lakes of Mount Fuji, infamous for two reasons: the horrifying amount of annoying foreigners and Japanese people who go there on their holiday, and the sea of trees, in Japanese knows as Jyukai. The forest where people commit suicide. It is the place in Japan that people seek out when they want to die. They come from all over the country to die a poetic death in a beautiful forest only several kilometres away from Mount Fuji.That should be enough of a reason to pay it a visit, methinks.

The forest by itself is large enough to spend two days in, but we figured we would get bored a bit if we only say the forest, so we did take the time to seek out some other forms of tourism. That was our first mistake, as these activities proved quite boring. Around the forest there are three caves that are marked as touristic sights: the wind cave, the ice cave, and the bat cave. A better description of these caves would be ice cave, ice cave and no-ice cave. Because that’s all there was. They put a bunch of ice in a cave and made you walk through it. My guess is that they made these caves only to profit from the massive amount of tourism in the area that does not generate any revenue, as the lake and the forest are of course free to use for everyone. Each cave has a very Japanese vending machine that sells you a very Japanese ticket, and you have to pay a very Japanese 280 yen to enter each cave. Except for the bat cave, which costs 300 yen. The extra 20 yen you pay for the privilege to wear a helmet. Great.

But that was not the main reason of our trip. It’s hard to describe what the main reason of our trip was, actually. Morbid curiosity perhaps? I think I was just curious to see if the forest was actually that much of an ‘evil’ place as people say it is, and I was interested to see how I would react if we did actually find a person who committed suicide. That being said, the chance of finding a dead person is incredibly small. Or so I told myself..

Between the wind cave and ice cave we decided to walk through the forest, in an at hindsight misguided attempt to make a shortcut. We ventured quite deep into the forest, in fact, and when we suddenly found a path blocked by some police tape and a no entry sign, we couldn’t resist to take a quick look. We walked on that path until we saw something to our left. We could barely make out because it was quite far away, but it seemed to be a piece of paper stapled to a tree. We veered off the path and into the wilderness to find out what it was. It’s hard to be completely certain what we saw there without actually knowing what happened there, but all evidence pointed out that this was indeed a place where someone committed suicide. There was a piece of clothing, an umbrella, a bag and a notebook. No person though. It seemed that everything happened long before we arrived. I still wonder why the police left the belongings at the scene, though. Perhaps as a deterrent to other people wanting to commit suicide? The piece of paper stapled to the tree seemed to suggest so. As somebody else told us later that day, the paper was a poem taken from the bible translated into Japanese. It’s message was to inspire hope into whoever would wander into that spot trying to commit suicide, and to make him change his mind. I hope it succeeds.

After leaving the woods and visiting the second cave, the first member of our party took off, and there were only two left. We wandered through the woods on a path to a lookout point, which promised great views of the lakes and of mount Fuji. The path was very steep for a hiking trail, and it was quite a climb until we arrived at the top. And there was nothing to see there. The haze had obscured everything from our view, mount Fuji far away, and even the lakes right underneath us. As darkness began to set in we started our walk back. From here on there was no plan, and we had to find a place to eat and a place to spend the night, because we did not book any accomodation beforehand.

Walking downward we somehow encountered a horse ranch at the foot of the hiking trail. It was quite isolated, and there was almost nothing around. We walked a bit further onto a small country road when we saw a sign that pointed us to a cafe. Just what we needed. Luck was with us. The path to the cafe was interesting, and on the way we found a small patch of land completely surrounded by barbed wire. At the front of it was a sign with some skulls on it telling us that we’d better not enter. A good suggestion, considering the bear trap hanging from the tree! I have no idea what that was about, but it was strange as hell.

The cafe was surprising. It was situated next to a major road, which we did not expect at all as we just came out of the forest. It got more peculiar when we were suddenly greeted by two foreigners sitting outside, who immediately invited us in. Straight from the wilderness into an English-speaking cafe at a highway. Not bad, I would say. As it turns out the place is also an organic farm and offers people a cheap place to stay in exchange for helping out with the farm work. The menu was entirely vegetarian, and the meal was probably the most healthy meal I’ve had in months. We couldn’t quite decide what to take, so the owner just offered us to share their evening meal, since they were starting to eat anyway. The atmosphere was so cozy and nice, it’s hard to believe that there was a suicide forest just next door to it. The dinner was great, and they pointed us to a nearby onsen so we could take a bath.

On the way to the onsen another surprise happened: fireworks. I had no idea why, but in the middle of the pitch-black darkness suddenly there appeared a huge display of fireworks in the sky. It was exactly in the direction we were walking, and when we finally reached the source the party was finished.. It seems that an all-girls school (or sports club) was having their school trip at a hotel, and we just happened to wander into their fireworks festival. They all scattered as soon as we arrived, so we just went on to the onsen. Which happened to be next door.

After the onsen we decided to return to the solar cafe, to decide whether we were going to spend the night there or continue walking in search of someplace else. We took some pictures on the way, and as we got closer to the cafe we pretty much decided to walk on. As we passed it we heard some voices, and the friendly Australian guy and American guy invited us over for a chat. They had some wonderful stories, and I was really impressed by what the Australian guy did for a living. He told us he was traveling from country to country, helping local organizations in farming the land and teaching them farming techniques. He’d been to many countries, and he was planning to go to even more. Thailand, Laos, India, Ethiopia. Quite an amazing list. It was very interesting to hear all his stories, it’s quite a different world from the one I live in. The other guy was great too. He translated the poem we found in the forest for us, as he was doing translation work in Japan. He also gave us a great suggestion that I will never again forget in my life: “If you really can’t find a place to stay for the night, try sleeping behind a vending machine. The exhaust will keep you warm.”. Noted in memory.

It was about midnight, and the best way to describe our mood was ‘happy-go-lucky’. We enjoyed the chat (and the drinks they treated us to, thanks guys!), felt lucky and were ready to go. So we started walking again, back towards the cave at first, and the route should eventually lead us back to the lake, where we were hoping to find a place to stay. Things were not quite that easy of course, and just walking back to the forest took quite some time. This phase of the trip was scary as hell. We had to cross a large patch of forest that lay between us and the lake. Fortunately it was connected by a road, but keep in mind that it was midnight, and the road was only lit sporadically by street lights. It would take us almost half an hour to walk it, and when we first started to move we were quite worried that we might get hit by a car because it was hard to see us in the dark. We soon found out that that was nothing to worry about at all. During the entire walk through the forest we only saw one car, and we managed to get out of the way well in time.

Imagine being in the middle of the forest in pitch black darkness. Not a sound. Not a single forest animal making a noise. No wind at all. No leaves moving about. No sign of civilization at all. The light of the stars was so bright that we could see a huge amount of stars in the sky above us. Beautiful. I have never been outside of my house and heard such a silence. It was deafening.

The lake was further away than we thought. As if the dark forest wasn’t creepy enough, now the fog was increasing more and more, and by the time we finally arrived at the lakeside we were very tired and surrounded by a dense fog. There were not much signs of life out there. We had greatly misjudged the amount of buildings at the roadside, and there was almost nothing there. Of all the buildings that were there, only a couple of them were hotels or hostels, and they were all closed for the night. Realizing that we would need to find a place to stay soon before falling asleep on the road, we decided to just find a place to lie down for a couple of hours, and then to continue walking towards the train station, which was still several hours away (as we would later find out). We found a nearby camping, which was at least partially lit. But nobody was around or even awake, so we had no way of entering one of the small cabins they had available for rent. Not wanting to walk any further we decided to sleep at a nearby picknick table, hidden in the shadows.

But sleep did not come easily, because there were still people awake. Drunk people, who made a lot of noise as they scrambled to their cabins, passing right in front of us for several times. But they were unable to see us because we were perfectly hidden away in the shadows. Unfortunately our hiding spot was located in front of two other cabins, and if any of the people outside were to come back to their cabins, there was a chance that they would find two gaijins (foreigners) sitting in the dark at their picknick table. Since that might be a cause for any large number of misunderstandings, we decided to take off after a short while. We walked onward, resuming our course towards the town center and the train station.

We walked many kilometres alongside the lake. We finally decided to take a short break when we reached the north of the lake, where the road veered off to go to the next lake and the town center. We were about to start walking again, tired, in bad spirits, and our feet hurting, when a car came through the tunnel we were about to enter. We waited for it to pass only to find that it stopped just behind us. When we looked back we realized it was a police car. The first thing I thought at that moment was: “this could either turn out to be very good, or very bad”. Two policemen got out and approached us. We were deciding whether to play the innocent and stupid gajin by only speaking to them in English, or to try and be as nice and possible and do our best to speak to them in Japanese. Before we could decide they already arrived, and we greeted them with a nice ‘konbanwa’.

‘Good evening’, is quite a light thing to say when you are walking several kilometres away from the suicide forest, in the middle of the night, looking quite a bit suspicious, I’m sure. They didn’t waste words, and asked us why we were there and what we were doing. At least we were thinking the same thing. I told them we were on our way to the train station, trying to find a place to stay for the night. Seems reasonable, I’d say. Brian added that we missed our last bus (which departed at least 7 hours before…). They seemed nice people though, and they told us that the next town was quite far, and would probably take us two hours to walk. Not the best thing to hear at that moment, and it certainly didn’t help our morale. They told us a taxi would be possible, but it would probably cost more than the hotel. We chatted a bit, and fortunately they were as nice as they seemed to be. When we were thinking about starting to walk again, they offered to take us to the station in their car! That was certainly a surprise. We gladly accepted ofcourse, and for the next 20 minutes we were the guests of these noble policemen.

As it turns out we had seen the same two policemen earlier that day, when we were waiting for the bus at one of the caves. At the time they arrived with sirens blazing, and went straight for the forest entrance. During our ride back the policemen told us about the forest, and why it was so popular for suicides. The reason that so many people commit suicide there is because of a book. A book by a famous author that romanticizes suicide. Apparently mount Fuji looks like a grave from the old times, and many Japanese would want to die there, arguably the most beautiful place of Japan. They told us more than 400 people commit suicide there in a year. That’s more than one person each day. Quite horrifying. The day before we arrived two dead bodies were found in the forest, and today the policemen were on patrol because another person had been reported missing. It seems that the person who was reported missing was not even from the same prefecture, but because it is such a common thing for Japanese people to commit suicide, the local police has to search the forest every time someone is reported missing. The chance that someone who is missing went to the forest to commit suicide is simply too large to deny. It was no mission of our police acquaintances anymore, as they finished their shift in the morning and would take a good rest after that.

They brought us all the way to the station, and they drove us a bit further to a family restaurant that was open 24 hours a day. We enjoyed a pizza and some sandwiches at 3 in the morning, and then we slept a couple of hours at the table. We were both exhausted from walking and being up for almost a whole day, and we could sleep anywhere, at least after the excitement of our whole experience wore off

We woke up at around 8 and walked to the station to catch the next bus. Going to the forest would be useless, as the policemen told us there would be a large-scale search for the missing person, and they didn’t want people to nose around while that was going on. So we decided to take the tourist bus to see if there was anyplace else that was interesting. By the time we got to the station we had walked another 20 minutes, and my feet were hurting like hell. I think we slept for most of the bus ride. It eventually looped back to the city, where we got out at a ‘herb fair’, where they showed a lot of pretty flowers. The heat was becoming unbearable, and we were both quite unmotivated to do anything involving physical activity, so we just took the train back home and were back before sunset. What a trip.

Thinking back to my experience, the adventure reached its peak during the evening, long after we had actually entered the forest. Having a talk with strange people from strange countries, walking on a road in the middle of nowhere in the dark of the night, getting picked up by the police, these are all things that I would mark as the highlight of this trip. But the thing that should have been the highlight strangely enough did not affect me much at all. I am talking about finding the suicide spot of course. I expected myself to be shocked, or at least emotionally moved when encountering such a thing, but I felt nothing at all at the time. I did not find the forest scary, evil or particularly beautiful in any way. To me, it was just a forest. It lends itself for a great story and slightly more exciting bush walks, but no more than that. I like to believe in ghosts, spirits and the paranormal, but the suicide forest is just not that. It’s just a dead place full of dead people, and that’s the end of it. I will not go there again. Unless it’s a weekday, and there are less people.