Spooky Izu: Tales of sorcerers and suicide on Izu Oshima
Now considered part of Tokyo, the remote island of Izu Oshima was long known as the final destination for political and religious exiles banished from the homeland. This sense of otherness and isolation, combined with exotic, almost alien volcanic terrain, also once attracted large numbers of visitors looking for a final destination of a different sort -- young adults who made the long journey to cast themselves from its cliffs in suicide pacts.
Izu Oshima's most famous exile is En no Gyoja (a k a En no Ozunu) -- an eighth-century shaman known as the founder of the mountain-worshipping religion of Shugendo. When En no Gyoja's rising fame and growing flock of followers began posing an indirect threat to the Emperor's sovereignty, officials trumped up conspiracy charges and dumped the hapless holy man on the remote island.
En no Gyoja spent three years on Izu Oshima meditating in a cave and -- oh, yeah -- using his mastery of a magical mantra called the 'Peacock King' to literally walk across the waters on pilgrimages to Mount Fuji, hundreds of kilometers away on the mainland. Exile isn't so bad when you're a powerful sorcerer. (En no Gyoja makes an appearance in the legendary J-Horror novel "Ring," in which his spirit is described as having fathered the antagonist Sadako.)
En no Gyoja's cave can still be found on the island, converted into a shrine for Shugendo pilgrims. Those lucky enough to arrive during a Shugendo ceremony, which are still occasionally held there, can take a look inside.
Mount Mihara: Suicidal volcano
Izu Oshima's Mount Mihara is one of the most active volcanoes in Japan. It has erupted at roughly century-long intervals for as long as history has been recorded in Japan. Long venerated as a local deity by island residents, who dubbed it Gojinka -- the God of Fire -- Mihara's peak dominates Izu Oshima, visually and spiritually.
When the sensationalized report of a young girl's suicide on the volcano's peak dominated newspaper headlines in 1933, young men and women began making pilgrimages to the island for the purpose of ending their lives in the volcanic caldera. The tragic phenomenon peaked in 1936, with some 600 throwing themselves off its cliffs and occasionally even into its bubbling cauldron.
All told, some 3,000 young Japanese chose to end their lives here in the decade leading up to the end of World War II. A series of Buddhist jizo statues erected in a forest grove midway up the peak, still accessible by car, remains as a stark reminder of the lives lost on Izu Oshima.