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Monday, July 2, 2018

Exploring Japan, Vol. 4 - Aokigahara Forest and Japanese Ghosts!

For the first three installments of this series on Japan, we looked at sacred shrines. For this one, I want to talk about a place that’s considered just as spiritual, though much more mysterious.  This was a place that's been on my "Weird Places Bucket List" for most of my life.  It's called Aokigahara ("Sea of Trees").  It's a huge forest that sits at the base of Mt. Fuji and it's considered one of the most haunted places on Earth.  

According to legend, the forest is unnaturally quiet, compasses don't work correctly, the trees are misshapen and there are holes and hiding spots for spirits and demons everywhere.  Very few animals dwell in the forest and it's incredibly easy to get lost if hiking on your own.

Now, some of you will also have heard of Aokigahara because of it's more recent (and unfortunate) nickname, "The Suicide Forest".  Please understand that I'm not at all interested in that side of the forest's reputation.  I have no desire to stumble across a dead body.  What fascinates me is that this entire forest has been considered haunted for hundreds of years, much longer than the "Suicide Forest" nickname which didn't come around until well after WWII.  

So my question going into this was, "Why this place?"  What is it about Aokigahara that makes it different from all of the other forests in Japan and is there any truth to the stories of it being ominously quiet, compasses not working, etc.

I'll get to that, but first we have to talk a little about Japanese mythology.  Anyone who’s seen The Ring or (my favorite) The Grudge should know that ghosts feature prominently in Japanese stories and legends.  The type of ghosts featured in those films is what is called a yūrei.  They are people who died while experiencing a huge anger or a deep sadness.  Their spirit is motivated to stay behind in order to resolve those feelings and until they are satisfied, they cannot move on to the next world.  If you look at the picture below, you'll see that the ghost in The Ring (above) is pretty much modeled straight from the traditional depictions of a yūrei.

Typically, they wear a white robe (akin to the burial robes of Edo-era Tokyo) and have wildly disheveled hair.  According to Japanese legend, Aokigahara forest is a magnet for them.  It’s filled with yūrei who roam the forest looking for mischief and that’s the crazy thing about Japanese ghosts.  They’re not just there to jump out and say, “boo!”  

According to legend, the yūrei will actually attack and kill the living.  So with the forest supposedly teeming with these vengeful spirits, the question arises again, why here?

Well, this forest actually is pretty different.  Most of it has to do with the geography.  Aokigahara basically exists despite all odds being against it.  Back in 864 A.D., Mt. Fuji spilled tons of lava through the valley where the forest is now.  That lava hardened into rock and absolutely nothing grew there for centuries.  Over time, small plants like mosses and lichens began to grow. Larger plants came later and eventually, the forest as we see it now sprung up.  The thing is, there’s not an abundance of rich soil for trees to take root.  In fact, our guide explained that the average depth  before you hit volcanic rock is only about twelve centimeters.  That’s nothing, and yet there are gigantic trees all around you!

So let me dispel a couple of legends now.  First of all, the forest is not creepy.  It's absolutely beautiful but in a way that is definitely unlike other forests I've visited.  Among the legends about this place is one I particularly love.  It recounts that the trees walk around at night and take root in new places under the light of the moon.  You can see why when you look at these insane roots like in the picture above.  With no place to grow underground, the trees take root anyplace they can.  They grow in, on and around each other and as other pieces rot away, you're left with what look like legs.  The thing is, all the trees grow like this which makes walking through the forest incredibly difficult.  Nothing is flat and if not for the well maintained path, hiking would be a real ordeal.  

Additionally, that jumble of roots and rocks makes it difficult to see what's really ahead of you.  As Karen said to me while we were hiking, “If you walked twenty yards off the path and laid down, I’m not sure anyone could see you.”

Second, compasses have no trouble here as long as you're not laying them on the ground.  Because of the type of rock under the forest floor, a compass can give you a bad reading if you just set it down, however if you are holding it in your hand, it reads perfectly.

Let's talk about the legend of Aokigahara being unnaturally quiet and lifeless.  This one has some meat to it.  I’ve done a fair amount of hiking and camping in my life and I’ve never been in a forest as quiet as this one.  I started paying attention almost as soon as we entered the path and for the entire time we were there, I don't ever remember hearing bird calls.  Upon returning and looking into it a little more, I found that wildlife here is, in fact, very limited.  There are some deer, lots of insects and yes, some birds, but not as many as you would think.  

Depending on your train of thought at the time, this can be either eerie or peaceful.  To me, it was the latter, but once the sun goes down, who knows what I’d be thinking.
Which brings us to the elephant in the room.  Yes, this place is sometimes referred to as “The Suicide Forest” and the reason why is a bit of a “chicken and egg” scenario.  According to legend, those who take their own lives become yūrei, therefore suicidal people come to Aokigahara in order to be near the spirits of others like them. 
People who come here to die often tie the end of a spool of ribbon to a tree trunk and then unspool it as they walk into the forest.  They reason that if they decide against suicide, they can find their way back.  If they decide to go through with it, others can find their belongings and notify their kin.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t really want to be walking along a path and find a ribbon.  How would you react?  Do you follow it in hopes that maybe that person hasn’t done anything yet and you can talk them out of killing themselves?  Do you follow it knowing that you may find something truly gruesome at the other end?  Could you live with yourself if you didn’t follow the ribbon at all?
These are the kinds of questions I didn’t want to have to answer, so we didn’t go to the parts of the forest where most people visit.  Instead, we booked a guide and explored a lesser visited trail and a humongous ice cave.  Which is why I'm wearing the bright red outfit below.  I swear this isn't a fashion statement.

Next week, I’ll take you down below the surface of the haunted forest and into a cave that stays icy year round.
See you next week!

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