Kuroi Jukai, the Black Sea of Trees, is a place for reflection and serious consideration of whether or not a life is worth continuing. Here there is no impulsive stepping out in front of a truck or jumping from the girders of a high bridge. The choices made here have taken time and are the end of a long deliberate journey.
The Green Line Tourist bus from Kawaguchiko Station drops me at stop number 72 for the Fugaku Lava Cave. It is a bitterly cold sunny afternoon and a few stubborn drifts of snow resist the advance of spring through the Fuji Lake District. I check for directions to the next cave at the ticket office – the attendant nods and points along the trail to the left. I scan her face for any clues she might suspect I am heading for a different destination, but she is unreadable. How often must she have been asked the way and see in people’s faces the truth of where they are going?
Along the woodland trail to the Narusawa Ice Cave is the spider’s web of warning ropes that mark the closed entrance on the right that leads to the Suicide Forest. On either side of the main trail is a row of wooden posts that have been driven into the soil until they each stand at knee height. There is something ritualistic about the pattern, as if they are the staking of a dam to hold back an invisible reservoir upslope.
I step over the ‘No Entry’ sign suspended from the yellow and black barrier rope and walk alone into the Suicide Forest. Many of the people who pass over this threshold have stronger reasons for dying than the ones they have to go on living. This is the way to leave the distractions of daily routine and honestly face the question of whether to continue with one’s life. To be here is to have stepped beyond the world’s judgement and to have entered a fragile place where one’s own choices can be faced unhindered. Here decision is mine alone.
I stop and listen to the sound of the wind in the canopy of the forest and the name “Sea of Trees” makes perfect sense.
Using the Sun as compass my bearing along the path is towards the light. I make a mental note that in case of losing my way I should strike out through the trees with the Sun at my back to return north to the road.
A few dozen paces down the trail there is a clear plastic folder on a mossy ledge. The papers inside include restaurant menus and room prices for local hotels – a small lifeline to the ordinary world outside the Black Sea of Trees.
Further along the path I stop to look around. Across to the right in a sunlit glade about a hundred paces away is a woman sitting hunched over. She is sitting on a log or a rock and is probably keeping as warm as she can by staying out of the shadows. She is still.
The forest floor is littered with dead leaves and walking is a noisy affair. A person’s progress along the path can be easily heard by anyone else nearby. There is no stealthy sneaking around in the Suicide Forest at this time of year. I continue walking and after a bend in the trail I notice the woman has begun moving and is slowly picking her way through the rocks and roots. Judging by her gait and figure she is perhaps in her fifties. Black trousers, a grey top and long black hair – I never see her face. She seems to be able to move much more silently than I. We go our separate ways.
The trail is partly overgrown and I push my way through low branches. As I weave through the trunks I put my hands on the bark of trees from which suffering souls have hanged themselves. I stop often to look around and listen, but even with plenty of layers of clothing the cold is biting. Across Japan the Cherry trees are weeping pink petals during Sakura season, but here in the Sea of Trees there are no flowers to be seen.
The forest grows on old lava fields from ancient eruptions of Mount Fuji. As the path winds around the creased and twisted rock formations there are coloured markings on the trees. White tape shows the way to sites away from the path. I follow where they lead and find an alcove in the rocks. A sturdy noose is suspended from the curve in a tree trunk and another noose is lying on the top of a rock beside an umbrella, old clothing and an empty can of beer.
On the return journey I notice the remains of what seems to be a television antenna corroding in a drift of leaves by a rotten log. A rusted steel pole hangs nearly vertical from a single point of attachment. It has been bound with barbed wire high above the ground to the forking of a branch from the trunk. The other binding that held the pole horizontal has long since decayed. This was a makeshift gallows.
I have spent a couple of hours walking in the forest. Although I have encountered no human remains, the paraphernalia of suicide is all around. If bones were not removed they would easily blend in with the fallen leaves and dead branches underfoot on the forest floor. There are many more stories that the Black Sea of Trees has to offer up if you have the time to spend here. It is tempting to take some memento of the visit, but the fables of many cultures would agree there could be consequences to taking what is not mine from a place such as this. I look back behind me as I leave the forest.
The ones who come to this forest have strong reasons to be here. How can anyone else measure what they have lost? My reasons for living are undoubtedly far weaker than theirs are for dying. I will think often of the woman I saw in the glade.