As a professional photographer in Japan, working mostly in the city, it’s great to get out into the sticks, even if those sticks are haunted, disorientating or synonymous with tragedy.

Ever since I saw this documentary about Aokigahara, Japan’s so called Suicide Forest, I had wanted to go there to photograph the ribbons and string that apparently undecided suicidal people tie to the trees and unravel behind them as they go deeper into this very dense forest in order to navigate their way back out should they change their minds.

From the pictures and film I saw of these ribbons, I thought they made for a nice juxtapositional contrast of geometry against nature.  It sort of looks nice but not so nice that you could call it intriguing.  At best it resembles some kind of art installation that I would rather roll my eyes at than bother to try and comprehend.  As the geologist in the film linked above mentions, the ribbons are unravelled by those still not decided whether they want to live or die making these literally thin ‘life lines’ that represent a mental state of despair in limbo and for those who chose not to leave, their final paths on this earth.   A pretty profound photographic subject in my mind, and certainly worthy of photographing.

Other sources I came across when researching this, cited navigationally unequipped thrill-seeking tourists as the source of the plastic ribbon pollution but it didn’t make sense that there were so many differing lines obviously left behind by different people all in the same area.  It made sense though that if you were undecided about living or dying and going to tread your own path into the forest, that you would bring your own ribbon and walk your own path and so I go with the geologists explanation of this.

This 35 square kilometre dense forest lying at the northwest base of Mt. Fuji is noted for its popularity as a place to commit suicide, some pointing to novels such as Tsurumui Wataru’s 1993 bestseller, The Complete Suicide Manual as being somewhat responsible for popularising the forest as a suicide destination in recent years, actually recommending it as the perfect place to die.  Other novels have also incorporated the forest with suicide narratives into their stories perhaps popularising it even further.

But it is not just in recent years the forest has been associated with loneliness and death.  Folklore suggests the forest was used in times of hardship to cull elderly family members that couldn’t be cared for by simply taking them there and abandoning them.  My experience in the forest certainly made the impossibility of finding your way out from a deep location in there very easy to believe.

There are something like 100 bodies pulled out of the forest every year (which is like 2 a week) and the numbers increase around the end of the Japanese fiscal year, March.  In recent years, the actual number of bodies pulled from the forest has stopped being published in an effort to de-popularise it and I think that’s an obvious first step in the right direction.  It would be nice to explore this majestic place without having to constantly think that around any corner there might be someone hanging from a tree or slumped behind one overdosed on some pills.

It’s a huge dense forest and I thought the chances of finding any of this ribbon was slim, but I felt like going on an easy hike at the beginning of the year and since a friend of mine was in town and keen to go too, we suited up and hit the road.

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan
Our ‘entrance’ to Aokigahara

I had heard stories about the forest.  That it was silent, that it was haunted by the souls of those left there to die by their families, or the souls of those that became lost on adventures and couldn’t find their way out, and of course those that had chosen to take their lives there.  Oh and that compasses didn’t work once inside.  None of those stories of course I believed but it turns out two of them are on point.

It is deadly quiet, no pun intended.  The forest must be full of life but there aren’t any signs of it.  When we entered the forest, two deer crossed our path about 20 meters ahead of us and happily trotted off into the distance.  That was the last sign of any life we came across for the next 4 hours on our hike off-trail.  No birds, no wind, nothing.  The only thing you hear is the crunching of leaves beneath your feet (unless it has been raining of course), and that’s kind of nice because you’ll instantly and absolutely know if there is anyone or anything nearby.  There’s just no way to avoid making sound here.

The other thing that proved to be true was that compasses don’t work.  At least mine didn’t.  I never gave it a second thought, thinking it was silly folklore, but whenever I hike I take a search and rescue grade GPS system with me, not only for the obvious reasons but also to record all my tracks and sync up the trails’ time code with my images later to pin point where I took my images.  Looking at this relatively expensive piece of navigational equipment that should be able to guide me home no matter where on earth I am so long as I have two AA batteries, with its compass completely kaput, I must admit I started to have a bit of an Alice in Wonderland moment.  Surely a few firm taps on the side casing of the unit would set things straight…  Nope.  A re-start then?  Nope.  Shake it vigorously and swear at it – double nopers!  Understandably it’s possible to lose your GPS reception under a canopy of dense forest, but magnetic compasses should work wherever you are unless there is magnetic interference, or maybe it was those lost souls intent on us not leaving?

Turns out the rich iron deposits from the lava rocks under the forest are the most likely cause of magnetic interference with compasses here.  I had spotty GPS reception anyway so as long as I moved, I could tell which direction we were heading.  A bit cumbersome, but at least something to fall back on should we get lost, which we did, and it happened unsettlingly very quickly.

First off we were not on a trail.  We were totally off trail and had managed to find what seemed to be a trail but was ambiguous to say the least.  It soon became apparent a bit further on though when the lines of ribbon started to appear, that the trail we were on was a trail trodden by either undecided suicidal individuals, thrill seeking tourists or a mixture of both.  Lines and lines of different coloured string meshed together into the undergrowth and veering off in differing directions.  Some running along the ground, others tied to trees.  The overwhelming thought when I came across all this was that there was just so much of it.  Surely all these people couldn’t have been suicidal?  Sadly the numbers suggest so.  As a person who is very happy in life, it’s incredibly hard to understand where these people were in their minds but stood in and amongst so much evidence of suicide you cannot help but try to understand.  It’s not like walking on the beach at sunset, put it that way.

One line of ribbon went off on its own in a completely different direction to the others and it being in my nature to follow the path less trodden, no matter where it might lead, we set off to see where it would take us.  My initial plan to get us to the Motosuko Wind Cave was dissolving quickly as curiosity of these lines took over.  Was it really so necessary to unravel all this mess just a kilometre or so into the forest to be able to find your way out?  Did people just do it because they read that other people did it?  The answer lay just a few hundreds meters and a few minutes away.

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan
Ribbons and string left behind by ‘undecided suicidal individuals’ or thrill seeking tourists

The undergrowth is volcanic rock and twines of tree roots covered in plants and moss.  It’s extremely tricky ground to cover and you never know when your foot is going to go right through something and you’re knee deep in natures grip.  When the ribbon ran out we carried on for a few minutes but by the time we decided it was probably a good idea to get back to the very ambiguous trail we were on, it was too late.

Since you can’t walk in a straight line here, it’s not as simple as turing around 180 degrees.  With all the twists and turns, what you think is 180 degrees could be way off.  It didn’t help that anywhere in the forest looks exactly the same wherever you happen to be.   Add to this the fact that the trail we were using was so lightly trodden that even when you’re walking on it, it’s so faint that if you closed your eyes and spun around a few times you’d have a 1 in 360 chance of finding your original bearing!

We hadn’t gone far off that trail but getting back was not going to be quite as easy as it first seemed.  Since my compass was useless here we had to rely on the GPS and the updated information we got from our movement.  The problem was the movement was so slow that it proved hard to make out if we were making any progress towards the recorded path we had trodden.  You had to walk several meters over this terrain and check if you were heading in the right direction.  If not, choose another bearing and try again.  Thankfully we had only just started our journey;  had it been towards the end when we were a bit tired and/or getting dark, this little hiccup would have gotten very old, very quick.

Looking at the graphic below, the trail head is on the right and we walked about 1.6km west into the forest and then veered off to the north following that one line of ribbon, going off the off-trail.  We only walked about 300m when we decided to double back but as you can see from the loop, we didn’t double back on the same route, completely losing sight of the ribbon and stumbling back to the trail way further back along our recorded route through a mixture of guess work and spotty GPS reception.  We had no idea we were literally meters away from where we had just walked and what I thought would be a short hop, skip and a jump became a 2km disorientated detour looping back on ourselves!  Just for perspective, I’m travelling with a friend who uses his iPhone and some navigational applications to literally walk all over this planet and take pictures in places he’s never been.  I’ve got my supposedly search and rescue grade GPS and hike a lot, but even with all this tech, our knowledge and preference for the visual sense, we got pretty lost, pretty quick.

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan
Going off the off-trail

Further along the trail we started to find littering.  Litter is not something you usually find when hiking in Japan.  It could have been thrill-seeking tourists I suppose but with the whole atmosphere of where we were, the ribbons that I didn’t expect to find, the compasses not working and getting lost for a few minutes, all conspired to lock my imagination into overdrive.  Maybe someone intent on never coming out was discarding their inventory piece by piece that they knew they would never need again.

Further on, deeper into the forest where the ribbon and string started to thin out and become very intermittent, someone had started to mark their way along the trail with back duct tape.  Patches of it stuck to trees every 20-30m or so.  Then the tape ran out and the empty roll it was on was discarded and was certainly dropped very recently.  A few meters on and I caught out of my peripheral vision something hanging from a tree a few meters ahead.  I knew it wasn’t vegetation because it was black and so was a bit hesitant to look.

© Steven West, Photographer in Japan

Someone had taken off their boots, tied the laces together and thrown them up in the air where they caught on some tree branches, a la California street gang style  These black boots are unmistakably traditional Japanese construction workman boots.  If these were the only shoes a person had bought with them into the forest, I was convinced they couldn’t have walked much further because this off-trail trail is tough even in regular trail shoes.  I had read stories and seen photographs of people finding shoes, sometimes a whole family’s set of them so perhaps this was something people did before they took their lives?  I didn’t know and I didn’t want to find out.  All I knew was it was dark and a very probable sign someone was close by.

Continuing along the trail the string was becoming less and less, the trail fainter and fainter.  Knowing the amount of daylight time left, the time it would take to get back to the road and the fact my compass wasn’t working, we decided to head back and not risk another disorientation moment.

To be honest I had never used the compass functionality on my GPS unit much until this hike but knowing now there are times it totally won’t work is good to know.  In the film linked at the beginning of this post, the geologist carries a Lensatic Compass, which are magnetic too, but I’m sure he wouldn’t be using it if it were useless there.  I’ve read that these compasses are built differently, perhaps more resistant to magnetic fields or something,  plus there are other accounts of people having no issues with them while in this forest.

Despite what the forest is known for, it really is stunningly beautiful and a great walk on the trails, a few caves in the area to be explored and some photographic opportunities there too.  According to the maps I referenced to get to the Motosuko Wind Cave, the trail stops short of it and you’ll need a compass for the remainder of the trek so I would definitely recommend bringing a lensatic compass if you’re heading to somewhere like that.  But in all honesty it’s freakishly amazing how quickly you can get lost, so make sure you got your s*** sorted before you go off any trail.