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Intruders tangle 'suicide forest' with tape

05/03/2008

BY YUKI OKADO, THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

FUJI-KAWAGUCHIKO, Yamanashi Prefecture--Some people walk into Aokigahara Jukai forest and never come out. They kill themselves amid this "sea of trees" knowing their bodies may never be found. Now, others are entering the forbidding forest for kicks and leaving not a tragic story, but a "tale of the tape" behind.

photoStrips of colored tape litter an off-limits path in Aokigahara Jukai forest in Fuji-Kawaguchiko, Yamanashi Prefecture.(YUKI OKADO/ THE ASAHI SHIMBUN)

Because the forest is so dense, those thrill seekers, like better-equipped Hansels and Gretels, mark their paths out of the woods with colored plastic tape. Forest workers struggle to clean up after the outdoor enthusiasts, but they say it is an endless task.

The tape mess is a cause for concern among prefectural officials, who hope to have the 3,776-meter Mount Fuji and the surrounding area, including Aokigahara, registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Not only is the tape an eyesore, it could damage the forest's ecosystem, they say.

Aokigahara, covering about 3,000 hectares at the foot of Japan's tallest mountain, formed more than 1,000 years ago, with the eruption of Mount Nagaoyama, a parasitic volcano that blossomed on the side of Mount Fuji, in 864.

The lava flow created cavernous terrain with dense vegetation. The forest's rugged inaccessibility led to the perception that those who entered would never find their way out. This, in turn, made it a popular site for people determined to end their lives in solitude.

In recent years, however, the forest has become a favorite spot for day-trekkers, campers, off-road bikers and survival game enthusiasts. These visitors, intent on returning alive, mark their route with tape. When they leave, the tape remains behind.

In late April, I joined the Fujisan Rangers, a group of part-time prefectural employees on a patrol in Aokigahara. As soon as we reached the hiking trail near Fugaku Fuketsu cave in Fuji-Kawaguchiko, we spotted strips of white, red, blue and yellow tape clinging to bushes lining both sides of the path. When we entered the woods, we found the same tape tied to the trunks and branches of trees.

So much tape was snagged on one tree it looked like a spider's web. Tape tied to another tree led deep into the forest, as if to lure the unwary into the dark woods. The amount of tape was overwhelming. Nevertheless, within an hour, we had filled two large garbage bags with the stuff.

Most of the forest is off-limits. Visitors are required by a prefectural ordinance to stay on the trail. Some exceptions are made for local residents and those with prior permission.

By law, 1,225 hectares of the forest is designated as a Special Protection Zone, where unauthorized removal of plants and damage to trees is prohibited. An additional 1,311 hectares is designated as a Class I Special Protection Zone, where felling is prohibited.

"Even if we remove the tape, there is always new tape wrapped around the trees when we come back," said Keita Akiba, a 27-year-old ranger.

Additionally, areas that see a lot of foot traffic have lost a top layer of moss, exposing tree roots. Experts fear the topsoil could harden, making it difficult for new vegetation to grow.

Aokigahara has seen its image change in recent years, as tens of thousands of people visit the forest yearly to participate in locally organized eco-tours.(IHT/Asahi: May 3,2008)

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