Northwest of the majestic Mount Fuji is Aokigahara, 13.5 square miles of forest so thick with foliage that it's known as the "sea of trees." But its grim history made the woods a fitting location for the spooky horror film The Forest. Many visitors have chosen this place as the setting for their final moments, walking in with no intention of ever walking back out. Here are a few of the facts behind Japan’s "suicide forest."
1. Aokigahara is one of the world’s best-known destinations for suicide.
Statistics on Aokigahara's suicide rates vary, in part because the forest is so lush that some bodies can go undiscovered for years or might be lost forever. Some estimates claim up to 100 people a year take their lives there.
2. Japan has a tradition of ritual suicide.
Self-inflicted death doesn't carry the same stigma in Japan as it does in other countries. The practice of seppuku—a samurai's honorable suicide—dates back to Japan's feudal era. And while the tradition is no longer the norm, "vestiges of the seppuku culture can be seen today in the way suicide is viewed as a way of taking responsibility," Yoshinori Cho, author of Why do People Commit Suicide? and director of the psychiatry department at Teikyo University in Kawasaki, told the Japan Times.
3. Japan has a high suicide rate.
The global financial crisis of 2008 and ensuing economic instability seemed to spur a 15 percent increase in suicides in Japan. The incidence peaked in March 2009, the end of Japan's fiscal year. In 2011, the executive director of a suicide prevention hotline told Japan Times, “callers most frequently cite mental health and family problems as the reason for contemplating suicide. But behind that are other issues, such as financial problems or losing their job.”
4. The Japanese government enacted suicide prevention strategies in Aokigahara.
The plans aimed to reduce Japan's suicide rates by 20 percent over seven years. Part of these measures included posting security cameras at the entrance of Aokigahara and increasing patrols. Suicide prevention counselors and police have also posted signs on various paths throughout the forest that offer messages like "Think carefully about your children, your family" and "Your life is a precious gift from your parents."
5. Aokigahara is naturally a bit spooky.
The forest's trees organically twist and turn, their roots winding across the forest floor in treacherous threads. Because of its location at the base of a mountain, the ground is uneven, rocky, and perforated with hundreds of caves. But more jarring than its tricky terrain is the feeling of stillness; the trees are too tightly packed for winds to whip through, and the wildlife is sparse.
6. In Japan, most people take their lives by hanging.
The second most common method is jumping from a high place, according to a 2004 study. The government has increased the height of bridge railings and other steps in Aokigahara to curb suicide attempts.
7. Bestselling books popularized Aokigahara as a suicide destination.
Mystery author Seichō Matsumoto’s popular 1960 novel Tower of Waves featured a protagonist who dies in the forest, while Wataru Tsurumi’s controversial 1993 work, The Complete Manual of Suicide, called Aokigahara “the perfect place to die.” The manual has been found among the possessions left behind by visitors to the forest.
8. The suicide forest’s mythos may be connected to ubasute.
Ubasute is a form of euthanasia that translates roughly to "abandoning the old woman." In this practice—allegedly resorted to in times of famine—a family decreases the number of mouths to feed by leading an elderly relative to a mountain or similarly remote environment to die from dehydration, starvation, or exposure. Many argue that ubasute was never a real tradition, but a product of folklore, protentially connected to the suicide forest.
9. The suicide forest might be haunted.
Some believe the ghosts—or yurei—of those abandoned by ubasute and the mournful spirits of those who took their own lives linger in the woods. Folklore claims they are vengeful, dedicated to tormenting visitors and luring those who are sad and lost off the paths.
10. Annual searches for the deceased have been held in Aokigahara since 1970.
Volunteers patrol the area and recover the remains of the deceased. Police and volunteers trek through the sea of trees to bring bodies out of the forest for a proper burial. In the early 2000s, 70 to 100 people’s remains were uncovered each year. More recently, the Japanese government has declined to publicize the numbers of bodies recovered from the searches.
11. Bringing a tent into Aokigahara will draw attention.
Camping is allowed in the area, but police consider visitors who bring tents to be potentially contemplating suicide (visitors who stay for multiple days are believed to be weighing their decisions). People on prevention patrol will gently speak with campers and encourage them to leave the forest.
12. The suicide forest is so dense with trees that some visitors mark their way with tape.
Volunteers who search the area for bodies and those considering suicide typically mark their way by tying plastic ribbon around trees. This method prevents searchers from losing their bearings after leaving the paths.
13. In Aokigahara, you may not be able to call for help.
The forest’s soil is rich in magnetic iron, which disrupts cell phone service, GPS systems, and even compasses. If you get lost, you may not be able to report your emergency—hence the comparatively low-tech plastic tape.
14. Not everyone who goes to the suicide forest has death on their mind.
Local residents lament the lethal reputation the peaceful forest has acquired. Many tourists visit simply to take in gorgeous views of Mount Fuji and visit highlights of the natural landscape, like the distinctive lava plateau, 300-year-old trees, and the enchanting Narusawa Ice Cave.
15. Don’t go off the path in the suicide forest.
The internet is littered with disturbing images from the suicide forest, from abandoned personal effects in the undergrowth to human bones. If you dare to venture into this legendary place, do as the signs suggest and stay on the path.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.