It is 4am. I couldn’t get much sleep throughout the night and the alarm decides to blast itself at 4am. I slowly open my eyes and stare at the ceiling. It seems so far away as I am lying on the floor. Well, on the futon which is basically the floor. I suddenly remember why my phone decided to wake me before dawn. I hear my friend who lives next door doing the same as me through these thin Japanese walls: trying to wake up. I look over at my backpack which is almost ready to go. Thank goodness I had packed the few hours before I went to sleep. I stretch, crack a few bones, and head for the shower. The August humidity hasn’t kicked in yet but the cool water over me feels really good. It helps me wake up. I put on some clothes and put some final essentials such as my wallet into my bag, and head out the door. Like synchronised swimming, my friend pops out at the same time. He looks like a mess. We say our morning greetings, lock our doors, and get in the car. Off we go to our first destination: the convenience store.
We sit in the car without talking for a while. It’s as if this married couple has some issues, and yet it’s just two guys trying to wake up. We hit the long road for about 30 minutes through the countryside of Northern Japan before we eventually see the 7/11 sign. We quickly pop in for some breakfast – the usual for any two lads on an adventure at 4am. Caffeinated beverages and bread full of chemicals and sugar. That tastes good… The way everything gets devoured into million pieces via the mouth into the stomach can only be described as truly sublime. We start smiling. We feel happier. We feel more of all the positive words in the English dictionary. Next stop: Suicide.
We are talking more now about the exciting trip we have ahead of us. My friend wants to visit the most haunted place in Japan. Aokigahara Forest sits at the base of Mt. Fuji (the tallest mountain in Japan), and is well known in Japan for having a spiritual aura about it. The place had been made popular by a novel entitled “Nami no To” (Tower of Waves) by Seicho Matsumoto, in which people go into the forest and kill themselves. It has also been noted as the place with the world’s second highest suicide rate, only being beaten by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. We thunder through Tokyo and onto the motorway, and we eventually see the glorious mountain in the distance. I whip out my phone to find the forest. With some excellent navigation work, we find a small car park with a secluded entrance into the forest. We park the car and grab our backpacks. There is another car parked next to us that looks rather suspicious. I head closer to have a look inside. The car has flat tyres, dirty windows, hundreds of bugs, and it doesn’t appear that anyone has driven the car for many years. My friend notices a sign in Japanese at the entrance. He asks me what it means. I tell him that it’s a sign discouraging people from going into the forest if they were to have any suicidal thoughts, and to rethink their choices. It carries on to say that there will likely be people who love them no matter what, and that they should return to their loved ones. We spot a path and head in. The forest almost seems magical. It’s as if I have stepped into an enchanted wonderland. The enormous trees tower over us into heaven, and their roots the width of my thighs curve over each other into the dark depths of hell. Moss covers all other rocks that have been untouched by vegetation. There is a mist to add to the atmosphere. If we had not known of the dark secrets that the forest held, we would have thought this place beautiful. We follow the path until we are met with a rope and a sign that reads “Do not enter”. Beyond it, the path disintegrates and is replaced by a red tape which volunteers use to find people in the forest and bring them back. The curiosity got the better of us and we head in. The forest instantly becomes very dense and it is very difficult to move through. A few minutes in, we see some flowers somebody left behind. Eventually we break out into a small clearing. The forest is silent. There are not even sounds of insects or birds or any life. Just us. Breathing. We remain still, taking it all in. Then we hear twigs on the ground snapping in the distance. I initially thought it was my friend but he didn’t take a single step since we stopped, and the sound was clearly from afar. There is a sound of someone moving through the forest, and yet we could not see anyone. I check my phone to see where we might be, but my phone goes ballistic. Signal dies, screen stops working. I look around for the red tape that could take us back but it’s gone. I tell my friend we should leave. We scramble back towards the way we thought we came, hoping that the red tape reemerges. The frequency of the twigs snapping become more frequent, combining with ours that we are completely lost as to what is happening and what we are hearing. Eventually we find the red tape and make our way out. The sounds of the twigs stop and all we hear is our breath. I check my phone and see it’s working. We head towards the original path and make our way back to the car. Now to head off to the highest point in Japan.
We drive to a bus station near the base of the mountain, where we find a car park and park our car. As we are getting ready, my friend looks grumpy. He says that there’s no point in taking the bus up to the 5th station to climb like all the others, but better to climb from the bottom. I remind him why others might choose to take the bus to the 5th station, as it would be incredibly strenuous otherwise, and he reluctantly agrees. Though it’s getting incredibly hot and humid, we put on jumpers and raincoats in preparation for the climb. My bag feels heavy with 4 litres of water, and I wonder if I’ll actually be able to make it. We pay for the bus and get on board. We sit not for long before we arrive at the 5th station. There are gift shops and restaurants lining the road, and a sign points to the steep path ahead. I look up to see if I can see the summit. There it is, the holiest tori gate possibly in the whole of Japan looking like a miniature Lego piece somebody left at the top. My friend decides to buy a Mt. Fuji stick to help him climb, but I decide not to at a steep price of ¥1000 (US$10). We start climbing and it feels quite easy. I can see the summit and I’ll get there in no time, I think. We head at a fast pace up to the 6th station and enter a small shop as it begins to rain. Inside is a young Japanese girl and an old man in the back. The girl is wearing an apron so I assume she works there. I was right. I ask if we can rest for a few minutes inside until the rain resides, and she nods us to some chairs. We sit and start talking. She explains that she lives in Fuji city, and she is working part time on the 6th station during the climbing season. I’m a little amazed that she climbs this mountain partway everyday to work, but she tells me that in fact, she has to live in this shop for the whole month of August in order to work. That is taking the overtime culture of Japan a little far, I thought. She asks if we want to order anything as the old man in the back will get grumpy, but we shake our heads no and explain that we will leave momentarily. She smiles and heads to the back. As we readjust ourselves to head back out, she returns with two cups of corn soup. She explains that she has paid for them, so we should drink them before we leave. We thank her profusely for her kindness, knock back the soup and head out. The kindness of strangers in Japan rarely fails to make me rethink my own attitudes towards others. The smallest selfless deeds can still make someone happier than you might think. We keep climbing into the clouds and I pick up the pace. The rain disappears into a thick haze and I literally have my head and body in the clouds. I lose sight of my friend so I come off the path and set myself on a rock. The sensation is a little difficult to explain. I’m surrounded by cloud cover which almost gives the illusion of floating, though I am perched quite firmly on this hard rock. I let my bag drop to the ground and feel my shoulders release. I reach into my bag and grab a quick snack while I await my friend. As I finish, I see the distinct shape of my friend slowly passing by. He sees me and laughs. I pack my things and join him.
It starts getting dark. My friend complains of being light-headed. We stop at the 8th station and he buys some oxygen. He puts the small canister to his face and takes a deep breath and starts taking steps forward. It’s as if I am watching an old man taking his final steps; very staggered and only one step at a time. Actual old people whiz by with a comparative speed of sports cars. He tells me to go on as he will take his own time or stop here for the night. The climb becomes extremely steep so I get my torch out and head forward. I climb for a few minutes and turn to look back. He’s gone. My legs become accustomed to the feeling of climbing and so the steepness no longer bothers me. Routines and patterns take over as I bolt through the night up to the 9th station. Here, I realise I am too early for the sunrise and try to take a rest. The cold pierces through my many layers and I sit, shivering. I decide to use the toilet as I begin to feel desperate but am welcomed to a ¥500 (US$5) charge. I reluctantly pay and head in to discover a deep hole dug out of the side of the mountain with piles of human waste below. I finish my business and resume climbing without any further breaks until finally I reach the summit. I find people scrambling for spots so I too head for a piece of rock and dangle my legs over a steep drop. I bring out my camera in anticipation and wait. People start to surround me and I quietly thank myself for the lucky spot. The sun starts to rise and the sky glows a royal blue. Silhouettes of the mountain provide great contrast for the pictures I take. Rare cloud formations below adds that extra magical effect to this moment. I think of my friend who gave up at the 8th station, wishing he had made it. After I take a number of shots, I sit in peace without a further thought in my head. This truly is the holiest place in Japan.
After Mt. Fuji has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, visitors are asked to contribute ¥1000 (US$10) to help pay for maintenance costs.
The official climbing season is July-August. It’s advisable to climb during the season to ensure personal safety, though crowds have been known to be extreme enough that queues form to reach the summit.
Bring your own food and drinks to get you through the night as options on the mountains are expensive.
If you climb through the night, dress for winter nights as temperatures drop like crazy. Also remember to bring a torch. Temperatures during the day can still reach below 0, so dress appropriately.
Altitude sickness is common and unfortunately the oxygen canisters on sale don’t seem to work very well. Please be careful!
There are various public transportation options to reach 5th station through combinations of trains and buses, and various routes up to the top. For further information, please visit http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e6901.html