This my first true glimpse of the forest, and I can already tell it’s not a normal place. It’s too quiet, predator quiet, like a cat creeping up on an unguarded nest.
Our crunching footsteps alert the local watchdogs who start barking, and one of them, a tattered and mangy black bullet, shoots out of a cluster of buildings to our left. Its bark is worse than its bite, and it stays at a polite, noisy distance from us while we pick our way through the shadows, hide behind trees and sneakily circumnavigate the empty ticket booth to get into the mouth of the ice cave.
The cave is wet and slippery, but not difficult to navigate. It is totally dark inside and I am suddenly very glad that Taka and Mamiko are here with us. The only light I have is a measly keyring sized Maglite with a beam not much brighter than the sparkle in a sheep’s eye. Levis light source is not far behind. Taka and Mamiko, by comparison, are Tokyo Dome Floodlights during a night game. Taka has a headlamp casting an eery bluish light wherever he looks and Mamiko is equipped with one of those huge Maglites that, were the batteries any stronger, you could surely melt small plastic toys with the beam.
The cave is kind of plain. The fear factor leaning more towards getting caught by security guards than by the strangeness of the place. Not sure of the geology (there is no guide to explain it to us) but there are two caves in the forest one filled with ice and the other completely dry. If memory serves me correctly this cave was used by emperors of yore as a private refrigerator and ice cream parlour and ice has been coming down from somewhere into this cave for a very long time. Cut cubes of it are stacked along one wall and the face of the underground “glacier” pushes towards us ominously from behind a mesh of safety wire. It is cold and dark and… silent. We switch off our lights and listen in the dark to the drips and plops of countless ice stalactites, and I try in vain to hear the ice creeping along the ground, but our breathing is too loud. It is a small cave and we are walking out almost as soon as we walk in and sooner than we expected we are at the mouth of a different beast altogether. None of us can see a bloody thing, blind and shivering from the cold we plunge into the sea of blue foliage.
The Forest at Night.
We are unable to see more than a few metres in any direction. Even the light from Mamiko’s light sabre is no match for the dark. It is very unnerving. Shining a torch in any direction reveals mayhem and chaos. Everything is odd angles and crooked lines. Strange shapes loom quietly in the dark and nothing startles or stirs in the trees as we walk. The only sound we can hear is ourselves crunching along and cars zooming faintly along Route 139 somewhere behind us, but the further we go in the fainter the cars get. We are jovial and light hearted at first, downplaying the creepiness of the place, but soon I am not so sure we are keeping to the path, and from what I have heard this place is notoriously easy to get lost in. The mood meter is already shifting to unease. Levi who has been here before, in the daytime, assures us that the we are on the pathway and that it is actually safer than we think but my senses say otherwise. I can feel a knot tying itself somewhere down in my primitive. Our little bubble of light is floating and flickering through the trees like a magic carriage and I begin to wonder what we look like to something watching us from the trees. The further we go in the stranger things get, the silence is now a steadily growing psychological pressure. Why are there no animals or insects out there in the dark making a noise? Sure its still early spring and a tad nippy but NO SOUNDS AT ALL? In a 2500 hectare forest? Mamiko is showing signs of distress, this forest is after all serious taboo, and I am surprised she has come in so far, she is a brave young lady. I am also starting to feel weird, there is obviously something different about this place, it feels strange, it sounds strange, and it looks strange. I have heard that GPS and compasses don’t work in the forest and wonder if there is mobile cell access here so I decide, as a lark, to call some friends in Tokyo and to my surprise I can get a line through.
“Hey! You’ll never guess where I am!”
Me, lighthearted and excited.
“We’re watching a movie, what’s up?”
Ryo, distracted and slightly irritated.
“I’m in Aokigahara Jukai with some friends.”
A little less enthusiastic.
Silence and the sound of the movie being clipped off.
“Where!? What the hell are you doing there? I don’t think that is such a good idea my friend.”
I don’t know what to say. Their phone changes hands.
“Hey what are you doing down there?” Uleshka, genuine concern. “This is not a good place. Why are you there? What are you doing there?”
I tell them about the cave and the hitch hike but they seem unconvinced.
“Just don’t bring anything back okay? It’s not good to bring anything out of the forest, I really don’t think you should be there.”
Well that pulls the knot in the primitive a little tighter. I sign off unnerved and rattled, rapidly re-evaluating the wisdom of our outing. I was not expecting Ryo and Uleshka to react the way they did and now I am edgy and anxious. Levi, further up the path, says we are about halfway and this relaxes me a bit but not for long, I have fallen out of the bubble of light and hurry back into it for safety. As I do so there is a rustle in the brush behind me. It is the first noise the forest has made all night and I leap about nine feet into the air.
At least I didn’t scream like a little girl, I think.
It was a stone tossed by Levi and he is grinning from ear to ear. We plod on in silence, the conversation sucked out of us by the forest like the light from our torches and the humour short lived.
The onsen induced a bit of a headache, so I have been gorging water since we left and now it wants to tend to the lowest point. It’s time to head off the path a bit and it is here that Mamiko flat out refuses to go any further. Who can blame her? Taka stays behind with her and Levi and I scramble into the black night armed graciously with Mamiko’s wand of light in search of a suitable place to pee. We go quite a way in off the path, and after only a few steps we begin to see ghostly belongings strewn all over the forest floor. It is desperately freaky. Sleeping bags, plastic containers and even entire futons rot silently in the dark. This is where people come to die, this is where people get hopelessly lost.
I focus on locating a good place to pee.
I find a log of sorts, climb up onto it, and relieve myself guiltily into the night. Seeing the grubby larval futons has jarred my senses. Is each a place where someone chose to die?
Suddenly it hits me physically in the chest; this is a serious place. A place where people walk in and never leave. Suddenly, my primitive is not so sure pissing on this dark entity is such a wise thing to do, but when a man’s gotta go a man’s gotta go, right? When I am finished I sweep the torch beam deeper into the forest and am startled to see the first bit of color I have seen all night; a single bunch of red berries glistening wetly like blood in the torch beam. I must have peed on them in the dark. To my primitive this does not bode well at all. We hurriedly rejoin Mamiko and Taka at the path and continue on our way in subdued silence.
I don’t mention the red berries, but Levi saw them too.
Group Psychosis Sets In.
Up until this point our group psychosis has been mildly amusing, but things take a dark turn when we come across two isolated trees twisted grotesquely around each other in the centre of the gloomy pathway. It`s a grim site in the blue-grey madness of the forest, the hairs on my neck stand on end and my skin tries to hide behind my back. Even Levi, who up until this point has been the calmest among us, is unsettled by the site. The trees are not lovingly embracing each other, they are struggling desperately to reach a patch of sky above like two swimmers trapped under ice and heading for a hole only big enough for one of them to get through alive. It`s a fight to death and it is a chilling sight in the murky light of our torch beams. We hurry past the trees, giving them a wide berth.
So here is where I go all Blair Witch on my own ass.
As I am walking, along peering this way and that into the silent darkness, I see a lone vine snaking its way along the floor of the path. In jest I pick it up and pretend to be following it into the forest as if it is a string guiding my way to safety. Suddenly my hands are wet and muddy and I realize that the vine is covered with some kind of liquid and only in one spot. It has not rained all day and the rest of the path and vine is bone dry. I am flabbergasted. Now I am no tree hugging hippie, but in my self induced primitive paranoia I am pretty sure the forest has just pissed back on me. It smells like pee to me and Levi urges me to taste it. No fucking way. There is loud crash next to me and again I involuntarily jump about nine feet in the air and probably add a somersault with a jack knife and half twist. This time I do scream like a little girl. It’s only Levi throwing another stone and my heart is beating in my throat like a trapped gorilla trying to get out of a cage on fire. It is so hilariously fucked up we all start laughing out loud but its more nervous than humorous. Suddenly my phone rings, the user name is unset so I have no idea who is calling me. I gingerly press the go button and there is strange silence on the line followed by a creepy gravely voice,
“Why are you in my forest?”
It’s Ryo, trying to be scary… I think…
”What are you doing in my foresssst?”
Fuck its not Ryo! Who the hell is this then?
“Why are you…”
No it`s Ryo, nice friends I got huh?
I call him out and he genuinely can’t believe I know it`s him. He must have gone through a great deal of trouble to find a phone with no caller ID and he signs off with mad laughter.
Silly as it may seem it’s about this time that we decide to get the fuck out of there. Fast. We are not so far from the Lava Cave but we decide that one cave a night is enough adventure and we head out onto Route 139 and decide it will be quicker and less psychologically traumatizing if we follow the road back to where Robochenko is parked instead of re-tracing our path back through the forest.
No one says it but not one of us wants to see those two trees in the dark again.
Pushing Robochenko Uphill in the Dark.
As we are walking up Route 139 on a gentle curve we can see evidence of a recent accident. Bits of broken glass and vehicle debris litter the road and the safety barrier has been breached, it is buckled and warped as if the forest behind it had reached out at this spot to test the frailty of human endeavour. The road here is heated from below to prevent ice from building up on it but that didn’t help the poor soul who lurched off the road here. We hurry on by in the surreal light of sparse road lamps and flickering orange strobe lights and we start wandering if we are going to find our own bodies waiting for us in the car, as if we are ghosts ourselves, unaware that we have already died. I certainly feel that way by now, and we all realize that we have to go back into the forest to get Robochenko, in the dark, to avoid security.
It’s a long walk.
Robochenko wont start. again. Actual panic sets in. The forest looms over us from all sides, Route 139 a proverbial light at the end of a tunnel is only a few hundred metres behind us but stretched away like a dream sequence in a cheesy B grade horror film. All rationality is sucked away like the light from our torches in the forest. Mamiko wants to leave Robo in the forest and come back for him in the morning and I simply won`t have it. I point out that it is considered bad luck to bring back anything left in the forest. My logic is that parking for a few hours and leaving it overnight are two different things and that we had better at least get Robo to the road side or in other words as far from this fucking place as humanly possible. Did I mention the complete breakdown of all rationality at this point? We actually push the car two and a half kilometers up Route 139, a busy, poorly lit expressway cutting through the forest and frequented by speed freak truck drivers hurtling through the night, and we each take turns between pushing the car and alerting drivers to our position by shining Mamiko’s flash light into their eyes.
No one stops to help us. Numerous trucks hurtle by and one or two family cars, but no one stops at all.
Four strange and deranged people frantically pushing an ancient car up a dark road in the suicide forest, in the middle of the night?
Neither would I.
Actually some people do stop – four young girls, on their way god knows where. They do a u-turn, ask us if we are okay, get behind us with their emergency lights a flicker, and slowly pace us up the hill and around the corner to where the Solar Café is located.
Einstein was right; space and time are relative. Minus a car the walk from the Ice cave to the Solar Café is about one kilometre and ten or so minutes (if you walk as fast as I do). Add a car, four scoops of group psychosis and a gentle upwards gradient and it becomes two hours and one hundred and thirty nine kilometres.
Temporary Civilization and a Creepy Hike in the Dark.
By good fortune Jake is still awake at the Solar Café and we blunder in jabbering away at forty miles and hour, he gets the whole story in thirty seconds flat and kindly lets Taka and Mamiko spend the night free of charge because it is late and their campsite is a way down 139. For Levi and I staying in the forest is so off the cards at this point it’s not even discussed and once we make sure Mamiko and Taka are safely in bed we head back up the pathway behind the Solar Café to camp out in that wonderful clearing we found earlier in the day. It too is a creepy walk, the residue of the Jukai clinging to our psyche like ethereal spider-webs. We trail them all the way up the mountain side. It is a dark and moonless night except for my portable sheep eye sparkle and Levis dim equivalent. The pathway is steep and twisty and to our absolute horror we can hear something stalking us in the bush. It is clicking and crackling through the underbrush and we cannot pinpoint its location. I rattle my keys madly to fend whatever it is off (a fox perhaps or a bear?) and we don’t hang around long enough to find out. My body takes over, clearly focused on getting to the wide clearing at the top of the path and to be out in the open under the stars.
Aaahh the sweet rush of adrenalin adventure. We actually start laughing, the situation has flipped into the ludicrous. We continue our way madly up the dark and silent path jangling my keys loudly all the way cos as funny as the situation has become that thing is still out there in the night dripping acid from its hungry salivating jaws and my primitive gathers more intestines for another knot.
Einstein is right again. Day time hike up mountain – forty-five minutes tops. Night time hike up same mountain with hell spawn in pursuit – eternity.
Eternity equals madness times the speed of light squared. It’s a long way to the top but we make it and I have never been so happy to see the sky.
It’s cold and windy all night, and “roughing it” would barely suffice to describe sleeping on the side of a mountain, next to a lake, with only a sleeping bag, a rucksack for a pillow and an insane determination to not have to pay for the privilege.
We are awoken by the sun filtering through a grey, hazy morning, a fine drizzle not quite wetting everything just yet. Fuji has a futon of clouds pulled high up over her head, maybe she had a rough night of it too.
From our campsite, with Fuji at 9 o’clock, we can see the two forests running parallel to each other. One a dark, bruised blue and the other a fresh, diluted green. We decide to skirt the border between the two and try to find some caves that are somewhere in the area.
All too soon we are back in the forest.
It draws us in, and finding the caves is quickly forgotten.