Part 2 of 4 – The Forest takes Root.
As we sit in the fading afternoon light eating a late lunch at the Solar Café, I get to thinking about the first time my curiosity was set adrift in the Sea of blue Foliage.
It was an exhibition held by Australian artists Kristian Haggblom and Warren Fithie who stumbled across a human corpse in the Jukai while in the area taking photographs in 2000. The ordeal was so visceral and the ensuing debacle of letting the authorities know about the body was so surreal, that the experience compelled Warren and Kristian to document the event.
What happened, as Warren later explained to me, is that they found the body quite by accident. They were not too far off the path that connects the mouths of the two caves that are the tourist attraction in the area. The path curves shallowly into, through and along the edge of the Jukai. They were exploring and photographing the visual brain melt that is the forest when they stumbled across the corpse, which lay not all that far from where people casually strolled by. They took photos of the body, all its belongings and surroundings in order to show them to the police, and to recall where the body was located. They proceeded to contact the authorities who, instead of rushing to the scene and starting a full blown investigation, merely told Warren and Kristian to hang around a bit because they were dealing with another body in a different section of the forest and the one ambulance servicing the area was otherwise occupied. Warren and Kristian were dumbfounded. They were never held for questioning, never had to give a formal testimony, just asked to point out where the body was, give some basic details and then were kindly asked to go on their way.
It was another body and another day, like getting a kitten out of a neighbour’s tree.
For their exhibition Hagbloom and Fithie returned later to place three new futons of their own in the forest and leave them there for a couple of months, using them as a kind of photographic plate to get an intimate exposure of the environment, an atmospheric or environmental photograph of sorts, and to display these futons as giant balls bundled up with strings and twine along with photographs of the forest, corpse and articles found nearby. On the floor of the gallery, beside the mouldy futons, there was a a large flat mound of salt in which were stood a number of to scale wax models of cellular phones with blinking blue LEDs on their antennae. They represented the urban landscape and modern mediums of communications within it that influence public and private perceptions of the Jukai.
The exhibition was harrowing and controversial.
Just like the forest.
The Jukai – Aokigahara by it’s official name – is a dark blur on the Japanese consciousness and has been associated with demons and death for most of it’s history. It was a place where elderly people were taken and left to die well into the 19th century and it was brought into the mainstream by the 1960 pulp fiction novel “波の塔” (Nami no Tou) by, Seichō Matsumoto, and its later adaption into other mediums. The story greatly romanticizes suicide. The forest itself is portrayed as a peaceful and beautiful place wherein the heroine, entangled in a hopeless and scandalous love affair chooses to die. After that the media’s knee jerk reaction coverage only served to further root the mystery and grim allure of the Jukai in the psyche of the general population and, given Japan’s cultural history of ritual suicide, it is no wonder that a spate of suicides has since occurred in the area. Not to mention that publications such as “The Complete Manual of Suicide” by Wataru Tsurumi, with over one million copies sold, have also continued the fascination with suicide and the forest.
Merely mentioning the name in polite company elicits sideways glances and nervous laughter and the subject is often quickly changed.
Creepy Crawly Afternoon Hike and Second Thoughts.
We finish off our meal, sip on another beer, and lay plans to meet Taka and Mamiko back here at around five pm after our hike. The two of us head off up the path behind the Solar Café to get a better view of Mt Fuji and take in some country air. When we return later, we have planned, we will go with Taka and Mamiko in their car to a traditional Japanese hot spring to relax before our camp out in the forbidden forest.
It’s a pleasant hike, not too difficult but strenuous enough to break a sweat and at the top it opens up into a large open space with picnic tables and a staggering double view. On one side, Mt Fuji rising up majestically (and that really is the only suitable adverb) on her nearly circular base, and on the other side lake Kawaguchiko, hundreds of metres below, lazing between the walls of a steep and winding valley. She is one of 5 lakes in the area three of which share the same water table. When one goes down the others go down too, and although it is assumed that they must be linked by underground caves this has never been entirely proven or confirmed. We putter around at the top for awhile, Levi taking photos and me enjoying the wind in my face and the silence. We have the place all to ourselves, and it is the first time in a while that I have not been within a stone’s throw of 20 million people.
It is starting to get late and I admit to Levi that actually sleeping in the Jukai is not very high on my life’s to do list and I think he has the same thing in mind. So we spend the next hour or so looking for alternative spots to make camp later should we opt out of our original plan to spend the night in the dark forest. While we are heading back down the hillside, we come across a squirm of larvae spinning a nest on the branch of a tree, and the sight of them crawling over each other blindly is both disturbing and grotesquely beautiful.
We both make a mental note to avoid camping in this area anytime soon either and continue on our way back to the Solar Café to meet Taka and Mamiko.
It has been a sparkling day and the evening is cool and inviting. Our onsen awaits.
The Japanese Hot Spring Experience.
Going to onsen is not my favourite past time. The idea of wandering around in my birthday suit with a whole lot of other guys sweating and dangling about is not really my idea of fun. I am also not too fond of hot water and am more than a little paranoid about hygiene in public spaces involving it. Thinking of of hot, watery places takes me to my first year of high school, stinky feet lockers, grimy showers, and that ubiquitous cheap deodorant haze. I battled with some weird infection on my foot for a year because of those showers, and when I finally emergency podded out of that hell hole to a new school, without mandatory sports, my foot cleared up within weeks.
So it is with some trepidation that I climb into the back seat of Mamiko’s ancient 1960’s model Nissan with Levi and we are soon off down 139 to the Urari Onsen leaving the Jukai, around the corner and out of sight, behind us for now.
The Urari onsen is larger than I expected. It’s a modern Japanese style building and outside the entrance is an ornate dragon welcoming in guests. We remove our shoes, Levi distributes discount tickets to us and we “rent” a little key on a rubber bracelet at the reception and are each handed a towel and washcloth. Bright yellow for the boys and pink for the girl. The key is for our locker and since we aren’t going to have any pockets where we are going, the rubber bracelet is for us to wear the key like an accessory.
At the entrance to the baths we part ways with Mamiko who disappears into the women’s area and we head ourselves into what I am only imagining as another high school locker room hell.
I have to keep reminding myself that this is Japan, and that I am probably the dirtiest creature here, and I’m not all that dirty. There are no strange odors, no wet mysterious patches underfoot, and it’s clean, not spotless, but practically sterile compared to my high school days.
Going to onsen is a national pastime in Japan. If it were an Olympic sport the Japanese would clear the medals tables outright. Most Japanese have been visiting onsen all their lives, so the extreme casualness of the other men stripping nonchalantly down to nothing actually makes me feel foolish for having any clothes on at all and I quickly begin to disrobe, everyone is either naked or in a state of undress.
Ancient men bent double, with bones grinding audibly in their sockets mill by; kids smooth and hairless with boundless energy dash this way and that in excitement; and pasty all-shapes-and-sizes salary-men pad around starkers as the day they were born as comfortably as if they are in their own bathrooms at home.
Well when in Rome…
Now one respite for me is this little washcloth they have given me, no larger than a postage stamp it suddenly seems, and it is with this strategically draped in front of my nether regions (like the leaf over privates in classical painting) that I step into the washrooms and brace for the experience.
We have agreed to meet Mamiko in an hour and a half, and the recommended time in the baths is just under two hours so there is plenty of time to do this.
There is a row of shower heads hung low on the wall in the washing area and I take a seat on a little plastic shower stool and start washing. The idea, I quickly grasp, is to bathe myself before soaking and relaxing in the hot water pools. Levi has done this before and is scrubbing away with a grin on his face and this somehow eases my discomfort.
It’s a walk in the water park from here on out and I have a great time.
We lounge around the various hot pools situated inside and outside the building, head into the sauna and then brave a high speed dip in a pool of ice cold water outside. From there it’s a hyper speed sprint to the nearest heated pool and I suddenly have to remember I’m not in Johannesburg anymore. I was raised in and around swimming pools — I actually have to suppress the urge to dive bomb the minerals out of the outside pool as I approach it at almost full tilt. I catch myself just in time and ease awkwardly into water in a most curious way for me, civilly and slowly.
Well there`s a first time for everything I suppose.
The combination of hot water and cool evening air is wonderfully refreshing and peaceful. No one is rushing to get it over with, hurrying to somewhere else, or busy with anything except maybe scratching occasionally at various parts of the body. Maybe that Darwin fellow was onto something; we look just like primates lounging around in the wild.
Our ubiquitous companion, Fuji-san, towers over the onsen disinterested in the hordes of bathing apes soaking in the pools of her warm tears at her feet. She is getting ready for the stars and is fading like a ninja into the darkening sky.
At the allotted time we are back outside in the relaxation area, lounging on Japanese Tatami mats, taste testing three delicious flavoured beers, and soaking in the glow of a thousand rosy cheeks. The onsen is a truly relaxing experience, muscle aches from the day’s activities washed, rinsed and neatly folded away, I am refreshed and ready for the main event – the caves and a night in the suicide forest.
We jokingly ask Mamiko and Taka if they want to join us and to our surprise they accept. We spend a little while longer on the mats sipping beer and discussing the plan of action and then make our way to the exit, salute the dragon farewell and step out into the cool twilight.
Moments Before the Real Plunge.
Robochenko won’t start.
That’s the name Mamiko has given her little blue chariot and for a car that’s almost 40 years old he is in relatively good shape. It’s rare to see such an old car in Japan. Taxation and an expensive bi annual road worthiness test called the “shaken” make owning older cars an economic liability and in Japan it is in many cases cheaper to get a new car than to hang on to the old one. The older the car the higher the shaken fee I believe.
We have to wait a while to get a jump start and daylight has faded by the time we get back to the Solar Café and it’s completely dark when we park Robochenko half way up a gloomy access road on the way to the ice cave and the forest. Not once do we stop to consider if the car will start again upon our return and we head into the silent darkness on foot.
Part 3 – Into Darkness – scheduled for Monday March 14th – was postponed due to the march 11th earthquake.