First published in Yamamba: In Search of the Japanese Mountain Witch by Stone Bridge Press.
K’s interest in Aokigahara – the so-called “Suicide Forest” of Eastern Japan—was purely personal. Burdened with suicidal ideation since he was a teenager, K, by the dissertation stage of his graduate studies, was more than comfortable with the idea of taking his own life. Indeed, he had tried to do so on multiple occasions, the most noteworthy of attempts being the time he washed a handful of Vicodin down his throat using a bottle of Kettle One vodka when he was twenty-three, as well as the time he tried hanging himself from a doorknob, his favorite Alexander McQueen scarf wrapped aggressively about his neck, several years later. Neither attempt was met with even a whisper of success, leading K to conclude that he was, in effect, stuck here.
“The body wants to live,” he theorized to one of his therapists once, “even if the mind wants to die.” This was not an orig- inal theory by any means, but one rooted in Cartesian mind- body antagonism. Descartes conceptualized the relationship between mind and body as ontologically “problematical.” To K, this was putting it lightly.
As a life-long student of Japanese studies, K well knew that classic and contemporary Japanese thinkers had consistently offered an alternative to the mind-body problematic. Embod- iment is central to Japanese phenomenology:
To K, there was a certain degree of liberation, even comfort, in thinking of mind and body as parts of an epistemological whole.
Furthermore, the Japanese just seemed comfortable with suicide. Early in his graduate career, K did extensive ethno- graphic research on what drives the Japanese to take their lives with almost casual regularity. Key to his studies was a close reading of The Complete Manual of Suicide, or Kanzen jisatsu manyuaru. K reasoned that the success of such a book (it has been reprinted three times since its first printing in 1993) illuminates important dimensions of the Japanese polit- ical unconscious. In his publications on the subject, such as “The Cultural Politics of Suicide in Japan” (World Journal of Suicide 13.1), K drew attention to the legacy of seppuku on the battlefields during the middle ages, the ubiquity of suicide chat rooms in the contemporary era, and, most importantly, the lack of any moral, ethical, or religious injunctions against suicide in the Japanese social fabric.
In this context, Aokigahara, an unauthorized sanctuary for the emotionally tormented to take their own lives, simply made sense.
K made up his mind: under the guise of dissertation research, he would travel to Aokigahara. He wouldn’t return. K’s passion for the subject of suicide, dedication to his studies, and intellectual acumen made it relatively easy for him to receive the blessings from his Japanese studies department at X University. In addition, Aokigahara remained untouched in critical scholarship. Novels had been written about it; tabloids had published on it; and films had been made—but scholars had yet to make the forest the subject of critical inquiry. “Aoki- gara,” he argued in his dissertation prospectus, “reminds us of the precarity of life while underscoring the fact that life as such is shaped and reshaped by pointed cultural, social, ethnic, and spiritual mechanisms. As much as the ‘Suicide Forest’ can teach us about Japanese conceptions of death, then, it can also, and more importantly, teach us about Japa- nese views toward life.”
Occupying an expanse of land on the northwestern edge of Mount Fuji, formed from hardened lava when the volcano last erupted in 864 CE, Aokigahara is dense and largely impen- etrable. Known colloquially, and less sensationally than its other moniker, as the “Sea of Trees,” the forest provides a natural sense of quietude. Because of its density, visitors often mark their paths with string or plastic tape. Stories abound of ghosts (yūrei) of suicide victims roaming the grounds. Such victims number approximately one hundred per year.
K was more than familiar with the stories and legends that haunted Aokigahara. Not one to believe in much of anything, K tended to dismiss all of that as the musings of the bored. He arrived at Aokigahara after a quick taxi drive from the local station.
“Don’t go in there,” the elderly driver warned K. He had kind eyes and a soft voice. “Even tourists get lost and some never find their way out. Haven’t you heard? It’s cursed.”
“I appreciate your concern,” K responded in his best polite Japanese. “I know the stories. I brought lots of string,” he continued with a mild smile. K felt bad lying to the driver. He had no string. In his backpack: a Hello Kitty notepad, a Mont- blanc pen, rope, a bottle of water, assorted snacks, a blanket, a vial of sleeping pills, a small candle, a knife, matches, and a windbreaker.
“It’s especially dangerous at night,” warned the driver, locking eyes with K in the rearview mirror. “But I guess everything is. So just be careful, yeah?”
The driver pulled into a small parking lot. On the far edge of the lot was a line of schoolchildren piling into a dirty school bus. They had cameras, were fidgety and excited. It was dusk. The sun was beginning to vanish behind Mount Fuji’s majesty.
“I hope you know what you’re doing. Don’t do anything drastic,” the driver said with concern.
On the drive to Aokigahara, K had explained his research project. The driver expressed fascination but, in retrospect, probably had his doubts. Nobody who goes into the bowels of Aokigahara really has plans to come out.
The path into the forest’s inner clockwork was well worn. Tourists and curious sorts made Aokigahara a regular desti- nation. And, true to rumors, there were pieces of string tied around a number of the trees that lined K’s way. Some trees had ribbons, others were marked with a large “X.” K thought of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail and a faint smile drifted to his lips.
The sun was mostly gone. What light that reached K was obfuscated by the forest’s canopy. The air was chilly. Roots from aged trees breached the ground in places, making K’s trek somewhat treacherous. The path beneath his feet grew sparse and trees marked with string, tape, and the like grew increasingly sparse. K trudged on, purposefully weaving between trees, under branches —making sure to get good and lost. Leaves and pine needles crackled under his feet; animals and insects made noises to his left and right. K’s breath ruffled in his ears.
It would be dark soon. That’s when K would stop walking to begin his rites. By candlelight, he would pen a note to his mother. Then he would fashion a noose from his length of rope. He would find a sturdy branch. He would swallow his vial of sleeping pills. Finally, K would pray. To whom or what, he was unsure. But it would be an appropriate thing to do.
K walked on for a short time before settling on his location. At the base of a mighty tree, K set his pack down and unzipped it.
Then he heard something.
Something shrill that cut through the murky silence. Some- thing human. He heard it again. A woman’s voice. K couldn’t make out what the voice was saying; it was too far away. But it was in distress, K could tell that much. Whatever the woman was saying, she was saying it over and over again, at regular intervals—like a dusty record skipping in time.
K stopped what he was doing and twisted his head toward the noise. He was unsure, but there was a certain quality to her voice: whoever she was, she sounded old.
He gave a slight shrug. Not my problem. He bent back to his pack and began riffling through it. The woman continued to wail in the distance.
K stopped what he was doing. That’s what she was saying— Help me. Help me. The woman’s voice felt, to K, sharper, clearer. And again: Help me. Like a thunderstorm, she was getting closer with each utterance. Help me. She was headed toward K.
K couldn’t tell which direction the noise was coming from, but soon the woman would reach him. He took a step backward, tripping on a fallen branch. K toppled to the ground. Reaching behind him to gather his bearings, K’s hand landed on what felt like a human foot. It was fleshy, cold. It felt dirty. K recoiled and hurriedly righted himself. He turned, in spite of himself, toward whatever or whomever was behind him.
Help me! She croaked through crooked, unsightly teeth. She was old. Her white hair, long and knotted, was splotched with gray. Her face was creased with wrinkles. Her eyes, clouded with cataracts. Help me! She spat again. She seemed not to see K; rather she looked right through him. The woman held a rotten staff. Her fingernails were warped and malnourished.
K had heard the legends—elderly women being taken to the mountains and left to die: obasute. He had also heard the other legends—crones inhabiting the mountains, preying on hapless individuals who wander through their wood: yamamba.
K was frozen with fear.
The woman extended a shaky hand, uncurled an ugly finger, and pointed at K as though marking him for death.
Lore teaches that such mountain hags are embittered and vengeful. Some eat men, others devour children. Some have terrible, teethed openings on the tops of their heads, others appear as beautiful maidens possessing the souls of hungry demons. Back at X University, K’s thesis advisor was an expert on these tales.
The woman croaked again: Help me. Tasukete.
She could, or at least would, say nothing else. In this light, she was paradoxically harmless. She did not appear to want to eat K; she was in pain.
The fear that had initially gripped K began to subside as he took in the visage before him. Behind the awfulness of her appearance, she was a victim. Her leathery, wrinkled skin showed signs of harm—scars, like railroad tracks, traveled the length of her arms. And her neck was marked with a faint ring, like a halo that had slipped from above her head. She was a woman whose body reflected a life of abuse and neglect. K should not have been afraid; he should have been moved. And to be sure, K was overtaken with sympathy. It dawned on him that her external scars reflected his own inner strife.
This woman, this hag, this crone; she was to be pitied. K, too, was to be pitied. A warped pair, these two individuals were broken reflections of each other.
She continued to wail. The sun had completely set, and her figure was claimed by the darkness. K fetched the candle from his pack. He also fetched his length of rope and knife. In that moment, K made a decision. He lit the candle, which provided a laughable quantity of light. Then, with his knife, he cut the length of rope in two. Then into thirds. And, finally, quarters. He fetched his vial of sleeping pills, tossed it into the night.
K stepped toward the woman, the yamamba. Her eyebrows quivered as her clouded eyes searched in vain for his figure. Tasukete ...
K thought about all the times he cried out for help—suicide attempts, depression, drug addiction. Nobody had ever been there for him. He extended an ambivalent hand toward the woman.
In that moment, in the darkness, the woman’s mouth mutated into a terrible smile. She lunged at K, jagged teeth shimmering in the moonlight.
David Sands Holloway was a scholar of contemporary Japanese literature, culture, and gender studies whose meteoric career rise was cut short by his sudden death, June 25, 2021. A tenure-track assistant professor of Japanese in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Rochester, David’s academic interests included the precarity of the “lost decade;” youth cultures and subcultures; the intersection of Japanese literature with gender, media, and fantasy; millennial issues; tattoos, body alterations, and self-presentation; and manifestations of Japan’s AIDS crisis in 1980s and 1990s popular culture and media. Creative writer, photographer, and an ardent basketball player until his knees gave out, David’s regard for life was always inflected with compassion and a sly humor, the latter of which is apparent in “An Encounter in Aokigahara.”