The chill of autumn has arrived along with its spectacular color pallet. Yards are sprouting pumpkins and skeletons; witches hang from brooms. Time to pull sweaters from closets we haven’t seen for a year and sip warm cider from mugs. This time of year calls for the dark and scary (truly, it’s the only socially acceptable time to talk of death).
I’m going to combine two interests here, Japan (because in the spring I’ll be traveling there) and all things creepy because Halloween beckons. Come, we venture to the exotic land of the rising sun. At the base of Mount Fuji, is a forest called innocuously enough the Blue Tree Meadow (Aokigahara), or the Sea of Trees. Lovely, little tourist area of dense forest which flourishes upon a lava bed dating from 864 CE. The forest is known for its profound silence part of which is undoubtedly due to the sound absorbing properties of the area’s volcanic rock. The conifers and cypress trees must also suppress sound. Perhaps it was this uncanny quiet of the forest that first linked Aokigahara with the traditional ghosts of Japan: yūrei. If only it were that innocent…
In Japanese culture, the spirit or reikon, leaves the body when someone dies and goes to an in-between state awaiting funeral rites in order to be reunited with the ancestors in the afterlife. If everything is done correctly, the reikon journeys to the afterlife and becomes a guardian of the family it left behind. Sometimes, however, things don’t go well for the reikon. If the proper rites are not carried out, or if sudden or violent death occurs, the reikon’s journey is disrupted. Even strong negative emotions (revenge, jealousy, hatred, etc.) around the time of death can act to pull the reikon back to the physical world as a yūrei. The yūrei continues to haunt until the appropriate rituals are completed or the emotions that fuel the ghost are resolved. By legend, Aokigahara is full of these persistent spirits. A likely reason for this is that ubasute, or the practice of leaving the elderly, sick or infirm out in mountain or remote locations especially during famine conditions may have been practiced here as late as the 19th century.
In more recent times, Aokigahara has become associated with suicide. The 1961 novel, Tower of Waves by Seicho Matsumoto popularized the area when he became Japan’s best-selling and highest earning author of the 1960s. In 2010, 200 suicide attempts were recorded with 54 suicides. To curb the association with this grim activity, the police no longer release data regarding suicides. Signs have been posted to discourage it. However, every year searches are made, and bodies are recovered.
The two Hollywood movies that have been made about the forest are The Sea of Trees (Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts) and The Forest. Both are good and might deserve another viewing. Happy Halloween!
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