Visitors are discovering that the “sea of trees” near Mt. Fuji is a wonderful place full of natural life.

By many criteria, Yamanashi Prefecture’s Aokigahara seems like it should be a top tourism destination in Japan. The vast forest covers some 30 square kilometers (12 square miles) and is so lush that it’s referred to in Japanese as a jukai, meaning “sea of trees.” Add in its proximity to Mt. Fuji and Lakes Kawaguchi and Sai, and Aoikigahara has all the makings of a prime location for outdoor activities.

▼ Aokigahara

However, Aoikigahara has also long been considered a prime location for suicides. While rumors of compasses being unusable in Aokigahara due to volcanic rock (the forest stands on hardened lava that flowed down from Mt. Fuji following an eruption more than a thousand years ago) or mournful spirits are urban legends, the forest is dense and secluded enough that it’s very easy to get lost, adding to its stigma as a foreboding place. Suicide-prevention signs, often asking the reader to think of their family, can even be found along certain paths.

But as the images here show, Aokigahara is also undeniably beautiful, and it may finally be shaking off some of its dark reputation. Saiko Yacho no Mori Kouen, a bird sanctuary in Aokigahara, holds an annual nature walk event each summer, taking groups of 5 to 10 people along trails and out of the harsh heat of the Japanese summer. This year, approximately 350 people (including families with children) gathered for the event, with roughly 50 participants coming from outside the prefecture, the first time ever for non-Yamanashi residents to take part.

In 2007, Fuji Kawaguchikomachi, one of the towns which contains part of Aokigahara, began a program to train nature guides for tours of the forest, initially attracting some 5,000 visitors. In 2015, the town welcomed 17,000 Aokigahara visitors, and annually the number of tourists has stayed above 10,000 since, with a total of 30 guides ready to show them Aokigahara’s flora and fauna, which includes migratory birds such as the narcissus flycatcher.

With winter coming, local ryokan inns and tourism organizations are planning a variety of special winter tours as well, as Aokigahara seeks to follow in the footsteps of other parts of the country which want themselves to be a destination for something less tragic than they were before.

Source: Yahoo! Japan News/Mainichi Shimbun via Jin

Top image: Wikipedia/トトト
Insert images: Wikipedia/Alpsdake, Wikipedia/Kuribo