The Fuji Five Lakes region, in Yamanashi Prefecture, is best known for its striking views of Japan’s largest and most famous peak:
But it’s also home to Aokigahara, the famed “suicide forest” which has the dubious distinction of being Japan’s most popular suicide locale. Signs at the entrance to the forest encourage visitors to rethink any suicidal thoughts and seek help.
The forest grows around the base of Mt. Fuji, in an area riddled with volcanic caves and lava tubes left over from Fuji’s active period, thousands of years ago. Several of these caves are now tourist attractions (for reasons that, thankfully, have nothing to do with suicide).
A few weeks ago, I took a visit to Narusawa Ice Cave, which was created about 1,100 years ago, when the lava flow from Fujisan gradually receded, leaving the cave behind.
After paying the nominal entry fee (about 600 JPY/ $6 USD gets you a ticket to both Narusawa Ice Cave and the nearby Fugaku Wind Cave) I headed down the curving stairs to the entrance:
A long-standing legend says the cave is inhabited by a dragon god, who protects Japan and carries suicides to the bottom of the sea, where they are judged (and punished for taking their own lives). I didn’t see a dragon in the cave, but he was probably just out working at the time.
The white patches on either side of the entrance in the picture above are snow–it had snowed the night before my visit, though the ice cave is particularly popular in the summer, because the icicles never melt, which makes Narusawa Ice Cave a great escape from the muggy heat of a Japanese summer. It’s also more crowded in summer, though, which is why I chose to visit in early spring.
A sign outside the cave warns visitors that one section of the cave is only 91 cm (2.9 feet) high, and that it’s necessary to bend down and crab-walk or crawl through the narrow section. For many years, I had nightmares about being buried alive, or stuck in a narrow tunnel underground, and though I haven’t had any nightmares in several years, I still felt uneasy about this part of the tunnel. I wasn’t sure how scary I’d find it, or if it would be hard for me to pass through.
I did feel anxious as I approached, but the tunnel wasn’t too narrow, and this portion of the cave is only a few meters long–shorter than a city bus–so it wasn’t too bad. That said, I probably wouldn’t enjoy it if the tunnel was crowded, and I couldn’t move through quickly.
Beyond the narrow section, a narrow branch dives deep into the earth. It’s called the “hell cave” or “hell hole” because supposedly that’s where the tunnel leads. I didn’t check, but I’m willing to take their word for it.
Like many Japanese caves, Narusawa Ice Cave has a Shintō shrine in its depths, where offerings are left for the kami (divine spirits) that inhabit the cave; you can see the little wooden shrine on the right side of the picture above. While the cave itself is not considered sacred per se, Shintō recognizes the divine nature of natural objects as well as living things, and places like this are often revered, or at least respected–particularly when they have a connection to Mt. Fuji, as this cave does.
The primary reason people visit Narusawa Ice Cave is the icicles–and they didn’t disappoint. Massive, natural icicles form as water leaches downward through the rocky ceiling and walls. Supposedly, the icicles are larger in winter. I can’t say whether or not that’s true, but they were massive–some more than two meters (6′) long.
Before refrigeration, Japanese people used Narusawa Ice Cave, and the nearby Wind Cave, as natural refrigerators. They carried blocks of ice cut from the lakes in the winter down into the caves, and then retrieved them when ice was needed throughout the year; they also stored seeds and other perishable items in the caves, to keep them fresh.
The cave has a variety of lighting–some blue, some purple, and some uncolored, so it’s possible to see the icicles illuminated in their natural state, as well as in color.
I’d heard about the cave a number of years ago, while traveling across Japan climbing mountains and writing CLIMB, but the schedule I was working on that year didn’t leave me time to visit. Three years and over 100 summits later, I finally made the trip–and it was every bit as cool as I’d expected, and then some (pun definitely intended).
So… would you visit an underground cave to see the icicles? Or do you prefer to keep your sightseeing above ground?