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It's too early to tell where a debate might lead over levying the kind of entry fees U.S. national parks charge to pay for upkeep. Meanwhile, Japan's military routinely conducts artillery practice near Fuji, lobbing live shells in the mountain's direction.

"It's funny," said a Tokyo newspaperman, "people don't care that they're shooting at the national symbol."

Fuji's jukai, or sea of trees, is its garden of dark visions. This swath of old growth forest northwest of the summit, deep and tangled as a fairy tale, is infused with caves formed by lava flows cold now for a thousand years. From a cloistered compound on its verge Aum Shinrikyo, a fanatical religious cult, staged a poison gas attack on Tokyo's subways in 1995, killing 12 and sickening thousands. But today the jukai's beauty belies its image as the suicide capital of Japan.

"This is where people go in and don't come out," said my guide one sunny Saturday morning when I joined a group of cave explorers at the entrance gate where Fuji's lower flank gently tilts upward. It was barely 11 a.m., but the forest was already in twilight. Tree roots roiled the hard lava crust like moss-covered snakes. "That's the tree," said our leader, pointing, "where, two years ago, we found a human head in the branches"—the remnants of a self-inflicted hanging.

Too many such grisly discoveries had led local firemen to stop yearly cleanups for fear that media coverage of the bodies only added to a national suicide rate that was soaring in the midst of Japan's deepest postwar recession.

I was shining my flashlight inside a low vine-covered cave, watching a caver wriggle forward on his belly, when one member of our group, a brusque man with penetrating eyes, said, "I found some bones over there."

He led me toward the ruins of a campsite that rose from the underbrush as we approached. There was a soggy green tarp tied between two saplings, a muddy sleeping bag, an empty gas can—and a nondescript pelvic bone. Stuck to the side of a collapsed tent were clumps of thick black hair.

"Thirteenth body I've found," the man said matter-of-factly. But there was in fact no body or ID, just the possible traces of a tragedy. A woman put her palms together in prayer, then the jaunty spelunkers were off galumphing through the dense pulpy forest, laughing and joking.

That struck me as callous. Somewhere, surely, old parents pined for word of missing children. A homemade poster tacked to a trail gate said as much. It asked for help in locating a 36-year-old salaryman and displayed a weathered snapshot. Through the cracked emulsion you could make out high, round cheekbones, a haunting, almost girlish smile, and the pomaded hair of a vanished man.

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