It was that time of year again when many of the teachers pack up and leave Korea for adventure or relaxation. Peering through the tiny perforations along the ribs of the airborne capsule, what looks like pools of mercury can be seen from below mirroring the residue of the abating sun. I relish the ritual of staring through the peephole. Like looking through a camera lens at a landscape, zooming out to reveal a patchwork of farmlands, then zooming back in only to discover I have landed in a new place. This time it was familiar to me though.
The land of the rising sun.
This is one of my favorite countries to visit. It’s the willingness of the locals to suspend their duties to assist a meandering foreigner. It’s the meticulous attention to detail and the precision in their intent. The way the city flows in orchestrated madness. It’s wondrous and addicting. The contrasting aspects of bonsai and bondage, comics and bukaki, sushi and sadism, martial arts and masochism, sumo and seppuku, Ponyo and porn, make it all the more alluring.
How could such pleasant and polite people be the most salacious in the same vein?
Perhaps this is why I’m attracted to Japan. I think we all have two sides that need to be satiated. I needed to lie on the mossy earth and let fluffy bunnies cuddle me into uncontrollable fits of laughter just as much as I needed to be hung from the ceiling and whipped after gallivanting through Japan’s infamous Suicide Forest. I’m going to mostly divulge in the darker side of my itinerary, however, my appreciation for the darker things in life, or lack thereof.
Japan does many things well, including romanticizing death. For instance, let’s take the story of The 47 Ronin, also know as Chushingura or the ‘loyal retainers’. It’s a powerful story of deception, vengeance, loyalty, honor, patience, and bravery, and is revered by the Japanese as one of the best samurai stories in their history. Between history and legend, the story goes that there once was a group of samurai and their master. This was 1701 in Edo, now Tokyo, where samurai were warriors without war at the time. The samurai master was wrongfully compelled to commit seppuku (ritual suicide by self-disembowelment) after a dispute with his antagonizer. His now masterless, samurai were ostracized from society in addition and had begun contemplating their own circumstances. Once a samurai loses his master he becomes a wandering ronin. A few of the ronin wanted to quietly accept their fate while the rest wished to protest. Their master’s family was also displaced and the ronin ultimately decided upon revenge against the man who prompted their master’s undoing in hopes to reclaim the family’s castle and reestablish their honor. Biding their time by taking menial jobs, the ronin were able to stockpile weapons and orchestrate their attack. A year later they ambushed their enemy. One ronin was killed in the attack yet they were successful. As an emblem of their revenge, the enemy’s head was brought to Sengaku-ji where their master was buried. The ronin turned themselves in afterward. The government admired the ronin’s act of bravery and for fulfilling their code of loyalty yet had to maintain their original decision and again compelled the remaining ronin to commit seppuku. What a beautiful disaster. Courage and brutality so intertwined that Shakespeare himself could only dream of creating a more charming tragedy.
While pondering this story of exhilarating vendetta I weaved through the gravestones of these ancient men. From here, the future will not experience their equivalent. What drove them to such extremes? They were dedicated to one man, one job, and one purpose. I can’t even commit to a shade of lipstick. The decision to devote their energy and efforts to avenging a singular cause is most admirable. Perhaps this is why I am drawn to Japan’s art of dying. I saw the well where the foe’s head was washed before being presented to their master, the tree which is rumored to bear splashes of blood from when the master split his own belly, and the graves of the men that were laid to rest alongside one another. Their bond will remain unbroken for eternity. There’s something about vengeance that soothes the soul.
Before walking amongst clearly marked graves on a bright day with other sentient beings I had the inclination to spend a day clambering through an overgrown mass known as Aokigahara or Kuroi Jukai (the black sea of trees), located near the northwest base of Mt. Fuji. Visiting this particular forest was the most ethereal experience I have had yet. The forest is the result of Mt. Nagaoyama, a zit like volcano nestled on the side of Mt. Fuji that erupted in 864. The forest is unusual since its floor is composed of mounds of lava rock, which formed innumerable tunnels and caverns. It is also unique for its reputation as a suicide destination. A 1960 novel by Seichō Matsumoto is blamed for romanticizing committing suicide in the forest. The practice predates the book, however, to feudal Japan where elderly family members who didn’t want to be a burden were taken to the forest to perish, an act called ubasute. Later in 1993 the ‘Complete Suicide Manual’ described it as ‘the perfect place to die’. Suicide rangers find roughly 100 bodies annually. The number of bodies unrecovered will remain a mystery since the forest is dense and unforgiving. I wanted to get a sense of what makes this particular place so appealing to people that have lost the will to live so I packed a few necessities and went.
I took the green-line tourist bus from Kawaguchiko station to Saiko Komori-ana bat caves. Cautiously deviating from the bat cave path I approached the mouth of
the Aokigahara. It seemed amiable enough and had a well-manicured trail. The initial impression was underwhelming. Having walked only a few paces in, I saw a blue handkerchief, not yet weathered from the elements, tied to a shrub. It seemed a little theatrical since I could still see the entrance.
I decided to track my movement with the GPS on my phone but there was no service. There is speculation that the metals in the lava rocks distort compasses and the forest is so dense that GPS cannot penetrate. It was odd since I was literally no more than 20 paces in. My GoPro was dead as well despite being fully charged moments before. I have been an avid connoisseur of horror movies since the age of 9 and am quite desensitized to things that go bump in the night so I brushed it off as coincidence and maintained my objective view. Yet, every step thereafter seemed to warrant a variety of strange emotions. The most noticeable aspect of the forest was the silence. I’ve heard of deafening silence before but never experienced it until now. It made my eardrums tremble, searching for something audible to process.
No mourning doves or crickets. No flapping of butterfly wings or rustling of leaves. The wind wasn’t even permitted. No white noise. It was like being in a vacuum.
This must be what absolute desolation feels like. It is said that the forest is devoid of all wildlife so I decided to look for it.
Drifting from the path I was determined to be mindful of my trajectory lest I get lost. It would be absurd to lose sight of the path since it’s wide and prominent. I trudged over the mangled roots and hidden depressions left from the pocked lava rocks for a few minutes at most and briefly checked over my shoulder to survey the status of the trail. It vanished. It was immediately behind me seconds ago, then seemed to dissolve. Assuring myself that I merely needed to retrace my course I decided to continue toward an interesting cave that was in the distance. I could crawl atop it and see the path after exploring it. After an eternity of tactfully tiptoeing between the pumice craters, I reached the cave. I went inside to see if any bats were suspended within. The temperature was frigid. Sweat chilled my flesh until it pricked with goosebumps. I clicked my headlight on and flooded the immediate space. Nothing. I scaled gnarled tree limbs to reach the mound atop the cave to find where the trail might be. Facing the direction I assumed the trail would lie I scanned the muted amassment of foliage. Nothing. Dejection set in. I typically embrace solace and quiet yet this was another beast altogether. Growing up across the street from the woods, which I spent most of my awkward teen-aged afternoons in, I figured this forest would let me freely delve within her depths. There was an unusual pull. I found myself seeing interesting shapes and textures further and further from the supposed path and wished to inspect them. I submitted myself to the forest then. If your will is to keep me, Aokigahara, do your worst. Send your Yūrei who roam about the forest seeking company, those tortured souls. They are believed to be spirits from people who died a sudden or violent death and that harbored feelings of severe depression or rage. Their goal is to encourage those reflecting on life and seriously considering whether or not to continue living to give in to the temptation. To lie down on a bed of leaves and let the forest engulf oneself never to wake up again seems peaceful. Unfortunately, the process is much more gruesome. Women generally choose to overdose on sleeping pills while the men tend to hang themselves. I empathize with the socially displaced, the tormented and despondent. I wondered how the forest was able to offer such solace to them. I definitely felt the pulses between calm and chaos. The chaos was all mental. The forest is a mediator between the madness within and the acceptance that nature offers. Be yourself, decide your fate. Yet it seems to be using its silence to speak volumes about which decision you should make. Thoughts are amplified and the forest has the power to drive one to the point of derangement.
Counseling my sensibilities I decided to commit to a direction and stay on course. Treading lightly and deliberately, for what seemed like 10 minutes longer than the initial deviation from the path, I found it. I’ve never felt such a sense of relief and dejection at the same time. Had the forest rejected me? Perhaps it recognized an amount of joviality it couldn’t conquer. And perhaps my disdain of being rejected by a forest says something deeper of the soundness of my mind at the time. No sooner had I found the path something caught my eye from the opposite side that I returned from. Are the Yūrei interested in keeping me as a pet after all? It was winding through the undergrowth, dark with a red underbelly and keeled flesh. The first evidence of wildlife, a Yamakagashi snake. She didn’t attempt to strike me as I inched closer and closer to identify her. I took her picture and continued on, away from the path yet again. There was another cave that looked even bigger than the last. This pattern continued until a sonorous crash of thunder resounded above the canopy. I could hear rain pattering atop the leaves yet I wasn’t getting wet. I smelled the air hoping for the comforting scent of petrichor. The forest seemed to quell smells as well. Was nothing permitted? Only the komorebi dappled the ground in alluring areas far from the path giving it an enchanting effect. It begs for a passerby, weary from the bleak surroundings, to bask. It’s a trap.
Like Alice in the woods meeting the deviously grinning Cheshire Cat, I came across a sign offering path options. If I don’t know where I’m going, any path will get me there I suppose. I chose the long route, hoping my sanity would be intact upon exiting.
Letting my thoughts wander they ebbed and flowed freely from macabre to manic. After the storm passed Cicadas began their shrill songs. That ended as quickly as it started. What a tease. I passed a young tree that seemed to bleed from a gash near its trunk. There were many species of fungi scattered throughout. I found a particularly brilliant red species that oozed a white fluid from its abrasions. As I brushed leaves away to better see the gills a centipede waived its segmented body in protest.
The forest was being slowly blanketed in darkness. I contemplated spending the night to see how the forest was at night but I decided I’d seen and felt enough and increased my pace to hopefully catch the last bus back to town by 5:30. If I missed the bus I resolved to stay overnight.
There is nothing to fear but fear itself. Oh and that anguished demon behind you.
The path was winding and I wanted to stray from the path every so often. It curved and sloped upward leading to a half barren half moss covered heath. At the base of the heath, I was startled to find bones. They were scattered in an unnatural manner next to a mess of hair. Upon inspecting the jaw it was apparent the bones had belonged to a deer. The spine was still intact but the skull, a few leg bones, and the ribs were missing.
Perhaps whatever killed the deer was hiding further up in one of the crevices. I would rather face whatever it is now than have it sneak up on me as I left the scene so I used a few straggling trees to hoist myself along. Peeking around a protrusion of dirt at the top there was nothing. The nothingness was more disturbing than the massive viper I imagined coiled in slumber as it digested a wandering tourist. Nothing but my imagination. I still wonder what happened to that deer and where the rest of its skeleton went. Briskly walking I had to fight the temptation to experience the forest at night. I had 2 kilometers left according to the random signage. There were so many interesting things to probe but I was determined to be a normal person and not sleep in a forest renown for people ending their lives. On the way out I saw the sign that attempts to discourage suicidal folks.
“Your life is a precious gift from your parents.
Please think about your parents, siblings, and children.
Don’t keep it to yourself.
Talk about your troubles.
Please contact the Suicide Prevention Association”
What I didn’t find was more assaulting than what I did. The bones were less troubling than the excruciating silence. It felt as if the forest was watching my every move and was sorry to see me go. It was jarring stepping from the belly of the Aokigahara as the light eagerly enveloped me. The visit ended at a Japanese bathhouse where I submerged myself in a spring overlooking Mt. Fuji and Aokigahara and contemplated my day. I justified everything. People see Yūrei because of the extra magnetic pulls in the lava rock. People kill themselves because of the solace this place offers. The forest is said to be devoid of life because animals can hear them coming from so far away and they have time to flee before they are ever detected.
A week later I would visit Mt. Mitake in Ome, a couple hours East of Tokyo. It was Disneyland in comparison to Aokigahara. It resembled a forest straight out of Studio Ghibli. The trees were perfectly staggered and gracefully erect. Creeks bubbled contently around seemingly strategically placed boulders. Birds perched atop the highest trees called to one another merrily. Perhaps I hadn’t imagined the crushing emotions in the Aokigahara after all. Perhaps there is something truly disturbing dwelling within the belly of that desolate place. Or perhaps disturbing imaginations simply thrive on silence.
We face mortality every day without realizing it. Nearly every meal we participate in we contribute to someone’s demise. From the cow that becomes your burger to the frog decapitated by the tractor harvesting vegetables, it’s inevitable. Dinner was no exception to my coincidentally mortality themed vacation. I booked a seat at one of Japan’s most exclusive sushi restaurants. The head chef asked me if there is anything I don’t eat. He assured me that everything he would serve me would be fish and I let him feed me at his will. The course began with a delicate tasting fish and progressed with richer cuts, more exquisite than the last. Everything was exceedingly fresh. I was introduced to my next dish, a single languid shrimp. The chef motioned toward the shrimp, who was balancing in a shallow dish and asked, “boiled or fresh?” at that moment the shrimp perked up to meet my gaze and cocked his antennae as if waiting for my reply. I am unsure how long I sat there dumbfounded imagining his demise. He danced a little while I contemplated his last moments on earth. If I choose ‘boiled’ will he be submerged in the volatile bath alive? I decided “fresh” so his life would be ended cleanly. It was. One precise sweep of the wrist with a beautifully whetted Japanese blade and the deed was done. No spasms. His body was sweet and firm and I held him in my mouth for as long as socially acceptable. I won’t soon forget the sacrifice. Next, a thick slab of what resembled human flesh was placed in front of me. As the chef began gently gliding his knife long ways, exposing a more crimson hue of flesh, one of his assistants read my face, whispered in the head chef’s ear and explained that it was a traditional Japanese food called “Waalae”. Waalae? It dawned on me. “Whale”. I politely declined and the procession of fish continued.
I have the taste of freshly ended life on my palate. No flesh thereafter will suffice. How morbid. I’m an empathetic sort of morbid at least. This trip has further persuaded me to reduce fish from my diet. Also between the Fukushima and Tianjin explosions, the fish is probably radioactive. Eating in Japan isn’t exactly dark tourism but I think everyone should meet their meat at some point in their lives. It gives a greater sense of appreciation to your meal. Japan and other Asian countries allow you to do just that.
After gorging on the bounties of the sea it was time for a little entertainment. The taxi driver pulled into a narrow but nonthreatening alley and read the sign as we rolled to a stop, “Jaaa-ill”. Snickering I paid the well-dressed driver then a friend and I cautiously made our way to Jail. Being my first S&M joint, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
The hostess was meek and boyish but adorable. The lights were dim and the room empty. I could see a semi-circle couch with straps attached and a rod protruding from the back which nearly reached the ceiling. A few tables lined one side of the room. We were seated and I ordered a whiskey. The hostess called out and a tall, buxom woman donning a tightly cinched corset sauntered in. Dominatrix extraordinaire. She composed her thoughts and in her best English asked if I had ever been dominated. Admitting I hadn’t she presented me with a menu of possibilities. I chose the one at the bottom. The dom masterfully wove a neon pink rope around my body then hoisted me up. I felt weightless. It was like being swaddled and vulnerable at once. I understand the allure. The anticipation and forfeit of control.
She released me and strode over to a table of pain-inducing contrivances. Running her fingers along them, she paused on a cat o’ nine tails. Looking sideways and raising a brow she asked if I wanted to try whipping. I eyed my friend, who was reading the snack packages on our table while nibbling on squid puffs. Part of me felt guilty talking her into letting me practice on her. The other part of me felt giddy as hell. The dominatrix explained the finesse in which whipping requires. It’s not a brutish act. As she talked she delicately swung the instrument with a rotation of her wrist letting it limply slide across her open palm. Taking a step back, tilting her hips, and using the whip as an extension of her arm, it grazed the recipient’s backside. She yelped in surprise. I took a turn and wasn’t as graceful. My strokes were violent and forceful. I am in need of much practice. I rewarded my friend’s bravery with the opportunity for vengeance. The dominatrix asked my friend in all earnest, “Are you kinky?”. She denied it yet her mastery of the whip was impressive. The tips of the whip phalanges seared my skin right through my denim skirt. A damn natural.
After the whipping games, the four of us sat down together and thumbed through a photo album that depicted past performances. We learned the place was deserted since the law prohibits performances after midnight. The photos depicted men and women being handcuffed, hung, contorted, with candle wax drippings poured over nipples, gagging, and other libertine concoctions. It was nearing 3 am and time to retire for the day. I slept on my side that night.
The next afternoon was my birthday despite already receiving my birthday spankings. What better way to celebrate life than with remembering how insignificant and short my time here has been? As I made my way to a 500-year-old soba noodle restaurant in Kyoto I couldn’t help but notice a storefront with antiques unceremoniously scattered outside. It was an unusual sight for Japan. It lacked the order and perfection so characteristic of the place. I was drawn inside. There were two heaps of items on either side of a path barely wide enough to shuffle through sideways. Sitting at the end of the path was a hunched over hoarder guarding his precious trinkets and bobbles. There was a stringed instrument made from a turtle’s shell hanging from the ceiling and a wave of novelties brimming over the hermit’s head as well.
I wondered if he would bother parting with his treasures. Half expecting to find a Mogwai I decided to play Jenga with the heaps hoping to dislodge something interesting. I used an umbrella as a placeholder anytime I shimmied anything free. I recovered a leather album that read “war album” in characters on the front. There were minuscule photos of men in war paraphernalia and others dressed for Kabuki. It’s like seeing a moment from history without the propaganda. Who were these people and what kind of lives had they lead? The living don’t leave as much to the imagination. One of the men who appears multiple times throughout the album was quite handsome and gazed stoically at the camera.
Carefully displacing more recently handled items I discovered a dust-covered music box. It was shaped like a coffin and had an outline of a key on the cover. It still played an unfamiliar melody when wound. I also unearthed beautiful smoking pipes still rank with spent tobacco, a Feather brand straight-edge razor complete with a honing strop, art carbons, guitar paints, folding fans, and an accordion book that was used for calligraphy practice. Nearly three hours after pawing through the man’s accouterments I was ravenous and overwhelmed with the amount of history I had experienced. It’s strange rummaging through the deceased’s belongings but there is something comforting knowing the items were special to someone. Nothing said, “made in China” either. It was like touching individual epochs.
The fascination with the departed stems from only being able to live one ephemeral life. The long-gone lived in a time I will never be able to experience. They had a different baseline. I can only imagine their existence. I can read about it in a book or watch a documentary yet that is still someone else’s interpretation. I can contemplate how I want to live and die. Shall I proceed like a forlorn samurai raging in the heat of vengeance or go softly into the night like a tormented societal reject? Knowing myself I’ll choose the former. If you have the fortitude to stroll through Jukai, tell the Yūrei I said hello.