TRAVEL (JAPAN): Sea Of Trees (Aokigahara)

Published on 30.06.14


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If you want to stumble into your own version of The Blair Witch Project, you needn’t look any further than Japan’s Aokigahara. Daniel Cribb gets swallowed by the Sea Of Trees and discovers something unsettling.

At the northwest base of Mount Fuji, hidden away from the tourist attractions that make the covers of travel brochures, lies a dense forest with an unparalleled darkness. Aokigahara, better known as the Sea Of Trees, is associated with demons in Japanese mythology. The thing that really makes the area unnerving is such associations make it a popular place for suicides, with over 100 each year. In fact, they no longer release exact figures.

Fittingly, a thick layer of cloud cover smothers the sun as our bus pulls up at the forest. We’re the only ones to get off and it takes a while to find an appropriate entrance. We pass the information centre and a tour group and begin our way down the main trail. It’s actually quite a beautiful place, and walking along the main, family-friendly trail, we find it hard to believe the thick forest surrounding us is as freaky as reported. We get two kilometres in and decide to venture into unmarked territory – despite passing a slew of signs urging visitors otherwise. We tie twine to a tree, and then we begin to push our way into the unknown.

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Due to the density and height of the trees and lack of wildlife, it’s dead silent as we start to push through increasingly thick foliage. Even the wind fails to find its way through, leaving everything feeling a little too still. Dead trees lie on their side, with their rotting roots lending themselves as stepping-stones and with a large stick we carve a path through cobwebs and occasionally test the strength of the roots. We lose phone reception, and then, with the sun hidden behind trees, our sense of direction. The only thing keeping us from becoming hopelessly lost is the twine trail behind us, which would probably cause concern to anyone on the main path. At this point, it feels a little too much like The Blair Witch Project, but it’s an eerie excitement that makes the three-hour commute from Tokyo worthwhile.

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There are no signs that anyone has passed through in years, but the chance of potentially finding something keeps us going – what we think or hope we’ll find, we have no idea. We’re not sure we even really want to find anything. You hear stories of people stumbling across umbrellas, jackets, various other items and occasionally human remains deep in the forest, but the further in we venture and the more we realise how huge the area is, we realise our chances of discovering something is unlikely.

The sun starts to set and our supply of twine is running low, so we begin preparing to turn around and follow our trail back to the main path – there’s no way you want to find yourself lost in Aokigahara come nightfall. No sooner do we decide to turn around do we spot something dangling off a branch in the distance. We get close enough to figure out that dangling of the branch is a leather belt that which, judging by how much it has decayed, has been there for at least a year. We climb through a number of fallen trees and thick plantation and that’s when we spot something on the ground below the belt. Under a thick layer of leaves and debris sits clothing. Our stomachs sink. From within one of the pant legs, a bone sticks out, we see more and more. There’s no way to accurately describe the feeling, and everything almost becomes surreal – like something out of a movie. We’re shocked, but at the same time, I don’t know what else we expected to find. We follow our twine trail back to the path and head towards the information centre, passing various tourist groups along the way.

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Through a series of hand gestures and photos we explain to the staff what we had just discovered, to which they seem genuinely shocked and immediately begin making phone calls. Two maintenance workers come in, get the lowdown, go to their van and, with straight faces – like it’s just another day at work – wander into the forest.