Photography

On Lake Saiko

Leanne Dunic

It’s my first time in Japan after nearly three years. I’m here to work on creative projects—photography, films, and writing—at an artist residency located on the picturesque shoreline of Lake Saiko at the foot of Mt. Fuji. Most North American homes are so hermetically sealed that we suffocate ourselves trying to keep the natural world from getting in, but here, rooms are divided by shoji—sliding doors with translucent paper between wood frames. This house by the lake is porous. Insects, seeds, vapours, sunshine and bird calls pass through the membrane of these thin walls. 

The residency manager tells me that the bus comes only four times a day, and it’s a twenty-minute walk to the stop. The nearest grocery store is one and a half hours away by foot. No phone reception, but there’s internet, and I’m grateful. I look forward to this change of pace. 

I send a message to my friend to tell her I’ve arrived safely. 

Are you scared of being there all alone? 

I’m not. The manager mentioned the area was home to mostly deer and tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog)—no animals to raise concern, unlike at my previous residencies, where I’ve had to worry about bears, aggressive monkeys, and wild boars.

My friend asks me a second time if I’m scared. Her insistence makes me wonder if there is something I should be scared of that I’m somehow missing. Is it that the pronunciation of Saiko sounds like psycho?

Since I have no access to a car, I spend the evening Googling places I can walk to. No shops. The odd restaurant. Lake Saiko Bat Cave. Fugaku Wind Cave. Narusawa Ice Cave. Wild Bird Forest. Aokigahara Jukai Forest.

Over a thousand years ago, Mt. Fuji had its largest eruption, pouring lava down the northwest slope and forming three lakes where there once was one. One of those newly formed lakes was Lake Saiko. The 3,000 hectares of scorching lava hardened and became a bed for lichen and moss. The area is named Aokigahara Jukai—sea of trees. Eventually, other types of vegetation emerged from the lava plateau. Now, the region is full of unique wildlife and flora and, most importantly for me, photographic opportunities. Aokigahara is said to be unusually quiet due to the forest’s floor of volcanic rock absorbing much of the sound. The area is greatly associated with yokai—supernatural beings—and is said to be haunted by those who’ve died there. Local officials have ceased publication of the number of bodies found in Aokigahara each year in an attempt to decrease the forest’s association with suicide.

I don’t tell my friend about the forest. I fall asleep to the unfamiliar chirps and barks of deer outside. 

 

When the sun rises the next morning, I wake up with it. The paper in the shoji rattles slightly with my every step. Outside, a single fisherman walks to his rowboat on the lakeshore. I stumble bleary-eyed down the hall to use the toilet, where I find a hand-sized huntsman spider on the floor. I use another toilet instead and find a stinkbug floating in the bowl. 

After a session of wake-up yoga, I make a bowl of steel-cut oats and take my breakfast to the tatami-floored room next to the kitchen. Only a short time after spotting the spider in the bathroom, I encounter the infamous mukade—otherwise known as a giant centipede (Scolopendra japonica).

The mukade explores the tatami under the tripod I set up the night before. I’ve heard about their venomous bites and irritating secretions, though I’m not sure whether those bites are fatal in addition to being incredibly painful. Looks like I didn’t need the “wake-up” yoga after all. 

Normally, I leave organisms alone or take them outside, but this time I stand without fight or flight. Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Allowables” comes to mind. I take note of my apprehension and remind myself not to kill because I’m afraid. But how to relocate the mukade outside and keep myself protected? 

I don’t know what tools are available to usher this creature elsewhere. Instead, I grab my camera. As I take the photographs, I’m unsure how close I can safely get to the mukade. The centipede moves surprisingly fast. I send a photo to my brother: This one chased after me!

You’re screwed, he types. Come home now or be eaten alive by these nightmare creatures.

Is this a nightmare creature? I back off when the mukade lifts the front half of their segmented body in what I interpret to be a threatening stance. The centipede scuttles on top of a floor cushion, so I grab the cushion and quickly and cautiously carry the creature outside. 

I return to my now-cold breakfast, my heart working overtime. 

Who am I to decide that the mukade shouldn’t live in this house? The entitlement humans have to space is something I struggle with. Of course, I’m not exempt from this behaviour. I’m pretty good with bugs and reptiles, but I hate the sound of rodents in my home. Still, I don’t want to have them killed for merely existing.

I look out the window to see a black kite dive to the lake’s surface in search of breakfast. A beeping version of “Love Me Tender” plays unexpectedly from the space heater, disrupting the moment, making me jump. Perhaps I’m out of kerosene. I brew a bag of licorice tea to try to lower the adrenaline in my system.

While the tea brews, I debate whether I should venture solo deep into Aokigahara for a photo session this week. Numerous books, plays, and movies have featured the forest as a site of solitude and mystery—The Sea of Trees starring Matthew McConaughey and the horror flick The Forest to name a couple of American forays. Most literature I’ve read about the forest mentions ghost sightings, and part of me believes this to be true.

I don’t want to contribute to sensationalizing the struggle of so many who have taken their lives in the forest. My mind is flooded with considerations about ethics, curiosities, and, notably, fear. I’m not sure how I’d handle the discovery of a human body, especially alone and without a working phone. If something happened to me, would the volcanic floor absorb my calls for help?

Maybe I am scared. 

I suspect the mukade was scared, as well.

Before organizing my new bedroom, I stand at the window to take in the lakeview. On the other side of the glass, a freshly emerged insect rests beside their exoskeleton. Transformation must be exhausting.

The translucent shell remains stuck to the glass, with a backdrop of the slate-blue lake and verdant mountains enveloped by clouds. I can only imagine how this beauty extends to the neighbouring forest.

 

At next daybreak, I enter Aokigahara for the first time. Soft pattering of rain. A butterfly circles me as soon as I dismount from my bike, and it’s hard not to see this as a welcome. I find fungi on the forest floor, and the clouds part just enough for a sunbeam to become the perfect, gentle spotlight. I accept this offering and take a photo; I feel nothing but joy and gratitude to be in this space.

We live here together.

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Leanne Dunic

Leanne Dunic is the fiction editor at Tahoma Literary Review, a mentor at Simon Fraser University’s The Writer’s Studio, and the leader of the band The Deep Cove. Her most recent project is a book of lyric prose and photographs entitled Wet (Talonbooks 2024). Leanne lives on the unceded and occupied Traditional Territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

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