Have you heard of the Aokigahara Suicide Forest? The Aokigahara Forest in Japan (Japanese: 青木ヶ原) (known as the Sea of Trees in Japanese 樹海) is the country’s most infamous forest. The Junkai forest is considered to be the second most popular suicide spot in the world after the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco. It is a popular spot for dark tourism as it is considered the world’s most haunted forest. Read for more about my experience hiking in this virgin forest and whether you should go. *TRIGGER WARNING.*
The Aokigahara Forest has long been considered a haunted place due to some stories about earth bound spirits known as (yūrei) who die with a deep sadness or anger in the forest as well as the legends of people leaving elderly people in isolated places, including this forest, to die during times of famine. Its reputation was only strengthened following the Japanese fiction book about a couple that goes there to commit suicide. Now, there's an American horror movie called The Forest about it. (FYI the movie “The Forest” is NOT real or based on a true story; it’s just a Hollywood interpretation of the Aokigahara stories. However, the Aokigahara forest is a real place, but The Forest movie was filmed in Serbia as the Japanese government would not allow it.)
Note: My partner and I independently read about this forest years ago as two internet denizens who enjoy reading Atlas Obscura, exploring abandoned places, and reading about strange things on the Internet. We’re both curious people and honestly, we went into this with an open mind after reading the Aokigahara forest stories. We just wanted to know what the Forest was really like.
However, the Sea of Trees is an incredibly beautiful forest next to Mount Fuji. It is a virgin forest and it is green year-round, a rarity among forests in Japan. It grew on top of the lava on one side of Mount Fuji, so the lush misshapen trees with strange roots surrounding/covering up holes in the lava make it fascinating to visit. I found it to be an incredibly calm, beautiful, interesting, and stunning landscape unlike any forest that I've ever seen before. It is called the Sea of Trees due to the heavy canopy that blocks out a lot of sunlight. I've actually been in forests with less light, but it can get quite dark depending on the section.
I hiked off trail with my partner with the aid of a lot of string, which is necessary due to the very bumpy landscape and the sometimes shallow roots that hide uneven rocks where your foot can fall through. It is nearly impossible to find your way back as your sense of direction disappears as soon as you’re ten feet from the trail and after hiking for almost two hours, I was in awe of the nature of this forest as well as its unique landscape. I should mention that hiking off-trail increases your likelihood of seeing something you don't want to see and I do not recommend it unless you're prepared for the consequences.
Is the Aokigahara Forest haunted?
Due to strange magnetic interference, your cell phone GPS will not work and often, the compasses do not work. Luckily, there is a well-marked path that will lead you out of the forest. however for those who want to do off trail hiking in the Aokigahara Forest, you’re forced to memorize the maps near the entrance. Even then, you will get very lost without the aid of a topological elevation map. The forest itself is so quiet due to a low density of wildlife and few visitors that you’ll hear few sounds, if any. As a result, it is a creepy forest to walk in, even with another person. It can be unnerving hearing the leaves crunch and the branches crack as if footsteps are approaching yet see nothing. It is easy to see how these legends continue to exist about this forest as the most haunted forest in Japan, but it’s not haunted.
As tourists, it's easy to seek out the exotic or haunted when traveling, however this forest's reputation lies in the sheer fact that people come here to die. I'll admit to be fascinated with the macabre, but when hiking here, I made a decision: I will not go to the part of the park where the trails become covered in ribbon. Why are they covered in ribbon? Often those who are considering suicide, but not certain, will use string or duct tape to mark their trail, they can find their way out of the forest. Alternatively, people will leave ribbons leading to where they are, so others will find their bodies. Following a ribbon trail may result in finding a person considering suicide (or their body). I will not partake in observing human misery and doing nothing to help. If you chose to follow a ribbon, you cross the line of being a tourist and become a potential witness to a suicide.
Do not follow ribbon(s) that you see.
At one point when we were hiking, I found a cell phone thrown down on the ground with the battery removed and a trail of ribbons trailing off in the distance in the direction we were going. We had already decided to avoid the most infamous part of the forest, but we weren’t fully prepared for the possibility of stumbling upon someone. I debated many things: Should we try to go help and are we qualified to help? I wasn’t honestly sure and the ribbons seemed to increase in quantity as we hiked. As we walked longer, I noticed the quality of the ribbons deteriorated. Had we been too late? How many others had stumbled upon these ribbons before us and how many had followed them? I will never know the answer as we chose not to follow the path as we don’t speak Japanese and we are untrained in suicide prevention.
(Shortly after publishing this, someone told me a story about how a friend of theirs followed a blue ribbon and found a dead body. She had to alert the police. I am not kidding. Please do not follow the ribbons.)
If you're thinking about visiting the Sea of Trees as a tourist, I urge you to think carefully about your goals for this trip. Enjoy this forest for this beautiful landscape that it is and leave kind ribbons with anti-suicide quotes (Your life matters in Japanese: あなたの人生は大切。) encouraging depressed people turn back and/or look for assistance. We might be tourists, but we have the ability to make the world that we come to observe a better place and it starts with a simple step: being aware of ourselves and the impact of our actions.
By continuing to make Aokigahara infamous by playing up its lore/haunted nature, we make it more attractive for those who are depressed to blame their suicides on the forest.
If you’re going through hell, keep going. — Winston Churchill
If you're someone reading who is depressed, stop thinking you’re not good enough. This forest is not the answer to your problems. This forest is beautiful, but it is not haunted. We all make mistakes and life can be difficult, but the pain goes away in time. There are more people who care about you than you may realize. If you’re having suicidal thoughts, please remember that your life is precious and call the following numbers to talk to someone OR seek professional help: Japanese Suicide Prevention Numbers & Global Suicide Prevention Hotlines.
Should you go?
I don't know. It's a truly one of the most fascinating and beautiful forests that I've been in. The forest is quiet, peaceful, lush, and generally without people. It is close to Mount Fuji, so it is a nice hike if you're already visiting Mount Fuji or the ice caves. The more people who go there, the less stigmatized it will be as many people still believe the forest to be haunted/the reason for these suicides. Similarly, more foot traffic might result in fewer suicides in this beautiful forest. It's a personal call, but I would say it's a humbling place to be in.
Getting there: Aokigahara Forest
If you’re still interested in getting to the Aokigahara Forest, it is quite isolated and time consuming (4 hours) by public transit from Tokyo. We took about 3 trains (including the beautiful Fujikyu Railway train) to Kawaguchiko train station prior to taking the retro touristic circle bus (limited hours). Nearby, there is a tourist attraction called the Narusawa Ice Caves where you can descend underground into a lava cave that has ice year-round. It was used in feudal times to store silkworm eggs and it’s a nice break from the sweltering humidity of Japan in summertime. The ice caves are a nice day trip from Mount Fuji.
The Aokigahara forest location is very close to the Lake Sai Bat Cave. You need to go to the parking lot and you will see a nondescript sign in Japanese. From there, there is a clearly marked path that is smooth and paved. If you go off the trail, you are going off the trail at your own risk. You may see something you do not want to see.
If you chose to hike in this beautiful forest off-trail, bring A LOT of string, something to cut it with, and a topological map (thank you random Japanese hiker). We ran out of ribbon as it was getting dark and we had to backtrack to leave the forest before darkness. Some people had cut and knotted string around individual trees, which would make your string last longer. We tried this, but it was very time-consuming. I found it was easier to tie the string to a tree before walking with the string loosely in my hand, so I could follow the exact path of the string back to the starting point. (If you go, please take your ribbon/string with you when you leave as you don’t want someone following your path when they could help someone else in need. Also, please don't litter!)
Would you visit the Aokigahara Forest?
Karen and Jacob. American expats and cat lovers from New York City and Kentucky who lived in Amsterdam.... Now in Paris!
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