Wednesday, March 5, 2014


There isn't anything I can do except stare through the trees and attempt to turn right-angled shadows into memories of faces gone by, picked clean by both nature and time. Trees encircle me and roots grab at my feet, threatening to drag me down to join them in pockets underground where the earth is wet and dark and the air tastes sour. Ahead, Ueda urges me to keep my feet and keep my pace; he jokes that the last person dropped off the back of one of their groups ended up lost in the forest overnight. He laughs as he says this.

Under the watchful eye of Mt. Fuji, trees and vines spring from ash-rich soil and water trickles through porous, black rock. Jukai is a forest of memory, Ueda says. As we scramble over root and rock he points aside on the trail, to a small plastic pile. Within he digs out two water bottles and a thin, mold-eaten paper booklet. The cover's mostly gone, but Ueda holds it up to a streak of light and examines its sides and flips through its pages. A suicide manual, he says, grunting with satisfaction. They find these scattered across the wood, a trail of expectations and truths. Not everyone goes through with it, Ueda says as he drops it and presses on.

Kintaro Ueda is a nervy man, long and twitchy. He moves slowly, deliberately through the forest, with an easy caution that speaks to his expectations and familiarity with these woods. Each step resets the mop of hair atop his head, and he often must brush aside the strands that run down his forehead. He carries a black military-style pack filled with water, dehydrated food, a flashlight, and an emergency health kit in case he or others become lost or are stranded overnight. Never seen use, he proudly states. Ueda is here because he lost his son to suicide in 1994, and each year since he comes out twice per month to assist with weekend anti-suicide patrols.

The forest is a lattice of wood and shadow that trap and hold back heat like a mesh net. I cannot see the sun and become disoriented easily. Compasses spin endlessly due to the metals in the earth. That's what Ueda claims, anyway. He bounds with confidence that increases with each step, almost gliding, with a happy grimace on his face formed through clenched teeth.

My job is to hold the camera, an old Samsung model chipped at the edges from several drops, but still reliable. Walking behind Ueda, I snap still shots of our progress and each discovery he makes. He picks up a severed section of rope formed into a small noose and holds it away from his body for me to shoot. I ask why is it left behind if they find a body. They job's not to collect trash, he says, setting it back on a bed of leaves at the base of a bushy, tall Japanese cypress.

Around mid-day on my watch we eat lunch in a small grove. We sit on broad roots under wide hemlock fir that grow close together and are lined with fuzzy, green moss. I eat four granola bars and a handful of mixed nuts. Ueda munches leisurely on a ham and cheese sandwich and stares absently through the trees. I ask him what he's thinking about. Past trips into the forest, he says in a soft voice. The forest is quiet, without the sounds of the usual animals that scurry underbrush or other signs of humanity. I ask if the Jukai is truly haunted, but don't get an answer.

Several hours later we find the corpse of a man. He's been dead a month or less, Ueda guesses. His exposed skin is leather, stained brown and pocked with white maggots that writhe in an excited feeding frenzy. The smell is astounding and drives me to tears. What remains of a threadbare, black polyester suit has become tatters, strips of fabric that dangle from bloated flesh. Souvenirs are scattered around the remains. A half-open purple backpack contains two empty soda cans and a worn paper map of the region. There is neither a wallet nor other identifying documents for this nameless man.

Ueda clamps a handkerchief to his nose and mouth and points at the body. Shoot, he says.

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