www.groovekorea.com / January 2015 66 DESTINATIONS Edited by Shelley DeWees (shelley@groovekorea.com) For some mysterious reason, Aokigahara forest has been the final destination for thousands of Japanese people taking a one-way, and it has been associated with demons in Japanese mythology for centuries. The dense, murky forest was long thought to be the haunt of demons and ghosts that wandered the forest and scared travelers. It is also believed to have once been a popular place for “ubasute,” a custom in which a sick or elderly relative was seemingly left in a remote location in a forest or the mountains to die. In the case of Aokigahara, it was said that the victims of ubasute became vindictive ghosts, endlessly roaming the twisted trees. I visited on a Tuesday morning, and it was not very crowded. My eyes settled on a man in his 30s, his head down, staring at his smartphone. I began to wonder if he could potentially be suicidal. Maybe he was simply checking on his cyber girlfriend. It brought to mind the “otaku” phenomenon: Japanese men who prefer virtual girlfriends over real, flesh-and-blood women. Such men, seemingly lovers of manga, anime and computers, show less interest in sex and relationships, and immerse them- selves in their own world, where they are happiest with their virtual partners. “The fear of rejection is the prime cause for Japanese men to avoid contact with real women,” mused Makoto Fukuda, a young Japanese man I met on my trip to Aoki- gahara, when I asked why it was so difficult for some Japanese men to commit to a relationship. “The next rea- son, I guess, is related to the changing position of wom- en in Japanese society. Traditionally, women depended on the men. Now it is changing. The manga girl will never say no to you, while real women will.” I wondered if the man I was observing just a few feet away from Aokigahara was on the phone with his real girlfriend or a cyber one; that, I will never find out. The awareness of why some people come here is almost paralyzing. A c h i l l i n g a s c e n t The first thing I noticed was the disturbing silence. The enormous quantity of closely packed trees blocked out the sun and wind. Even though it was a beautiful sunny day, with no clouds and little breeze, inside the forest it was almost spooky, somewhere between “Sleepy Hol- low” (1999) and “The Blair Witch Project” (1999). It’s perhaps easy to see why this place may influence a person to such an extent that they decide to take their own lives, especially when such writings as Seicho Mat- sumoto’s 1961 novel “Nami no To (Tower of Waves)” or, more recently, “The Complete Manual of Suicide” (1993) by Wataru Tsurumi suggest that this forest is the perfect place to end one’s life. Wataru gives explicit instructions for a painless death: “Your body will not be found. You will become a missing person and slowly disappear from people’s memory.” Observing people on the streets, I found myself won- dering about them. Had they only recently begun to es- cape reality to the extent that they see no other option but to commit suicide, or has this suicide genome been carried for centuries? In Western history, when a noble man or a king was re- moved from power, he would escape to another country to hide in a foreign court. That was a common practice because all the royal families in Europe were related and no one saw anything wrong in escaping to save one’s own life. After Charles II of England lost to Cromwell’s army during the battle of Worcester in 1651, he fled to France and stayed there until the monarchy was restored in 1660. Then we have Marie Antoinette, who was caught while fleeing from Tuileries, or the more recent escape by Viktor Yanukovych, president of Ukraine, to a neighboring country. Some will do all it takes to survive, even if they have to wait for years for the better times to come. This doesn’t seem to be the case with the Japanese. There is no room for disobedience here; everyone knows their place. If you do not follow the right path you will be shamed by others. Japanese culture is still very collec- tive, and this is clear throughout the different neighbor- hoods of Tokyo. Takeshita-dori, a street in the Harajuku district, is a home for Lolitas. If you don’t particularly agree with the strict rules of society, you can escape into this reality. But doing so, you are still a part of a group of people with similar expectations and beliefs. If you are excluded from the group by others, you are left alone and the isolation may lead you to feel that suicide is the only way out. T h e p e r f e c t p l a c e t o e n d s o m e o n e’s l i f e ‘In historical times, death was everywhere. War, disease, suffering — it affected everybody, from rich to poor. Suicide was an honorable way out when there were no other options available.’ Hiroyuki Matsumoto