Experience the Serenity of Forest Bathing

12/12/2022

There is something extraordinary about walking in the woods. Scents of raw earth and flora permeate the air. Sound is limited to that of the crunching path beneath your feet and the subtle movements of birds and branches and breeze. In this space we find serenity. The busyness and tasks of day-to-day life dissipate in the haze of filtered light dappling through the trees. Our world becomes a little smaller and a little more still when we seek the perspective and peace of nature. 

This is shinrin-yoku, forest bathing. It is revered in Japanese culture not only as an enjoyable way of spending time, but as an act of preventative health care. Forest bathing is an unexpected act of self-care that you may want to schedule into your trip to Japan.

 

What is Forest Bathing

More than just taking a walk, although that certainly has its benefits, forest bathing asks for intentionality. It is a sensory experience that invites people of all ages and physical abilities to steep themselves in the beauty and stillness of nature. Much like meditation, forest bathing asks for no distraction. No cell phones, no headphones playing music, no exertion. While walking is welcome, so is sitting—as long as the experience immerses you in nature. The focus of forest bathing is stillness, breathwork and taking in your surroundings.

Forest bathing can be done individually or as part of a guided group. Groups are typically led by certified individuals who are trained in therapeutic meditative practices as well as outdoor safety. A group may be beneficial to those unaccustomed to hiking in unfamiliar locations however, it should be noted that most forest bathing groups in Japan are led in Japanese and may not offer translation services. Forest bathing can be a safe and serene experience even outside of a group so long as you respect marked trails.

 

Benefits of Forest Bathing

The practice of forest bathing has been around for ages, but it was more formally recognized for its measurable health benefits in the 1980s. It was at this time that recognition of anxiety and depression began to increase globally. As people sought to understand the cause and possible remedy to these increasing mental health issues, a strong connection was made between time spent outdoors and reduction in anxiety and depression.

This connection as well as forest bathing’s many benefits are outlined in the book “Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness” by Dr. Qing Li, MD, Ph.D. As a doctor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, president of the Society of Forest Medicine and an author, Dr. Li is an expert on forest bathing. Based on his research Dr. Li estimates that we spend 93% of our time indoors—more than at any other point in history. This startling statistic, paired with the fact that cities and contemporary urban planning limit many people’s access to green spaces, results in a true need for people to spend more time in nature. 

Research into the benefits of forest bathing has shown lower blood pressure and heart rate, as well as reduced levels of harmful hormones like cortisol, which your body produces when it’s stressed. Studies have also shown that spending a mere 10 to 20 minutes a day in nature can lead to an increased sense of well-being and happiness as well as decreased amounts of stress. 

 

How to Practice Forest Bathing

The first and most important step is to identify a location (a few scenic locations are outlined below). Preparing yourself with the proper attire, water and perhaps a favorite snack, it’s time to head to the trail. 

It’s up to you if your forest bathing experience takes place over the course of a serene and slow walk along a trail or if you wish to find a particularly beautiful or meaningful location along the trail to stop and immerse yourself. Leaving your phone safely tucked away, the first meditative step to forest bathing is simply taking a few deep breaths. Center yourself and focus on the experience of your senses—the sights of the picturesque verdant Japanese mountainside, the smell of flowers and trees likely not found in your neighborhood back home, the sound of birds, or maybe even a nearby water source. 

While in this meditative mindset, many who practice forest bathing look for elements of awe, wonder or gratitude. Noting things like the beauty of your surroundings or a particularly unique aspect of exploring the nature of Japan will only add to the benefits of forest bathing. Journaling about the experience, either while sitting in nature or afterward in a moment of reflection, may also be a helpful element to this practice.

Where to Go

Knowing the history, benefits and how to practice forest bathing, you may be ready to add this cultural experience to your itinerary. Here are just a few of Japan’s most beautiful and accessible outdoor spaces ideal for practicing forest bathing.

 

Japanese Alps

Accessing the Japanese Alps from Tokyo is as easy as stepping onto a bus. Kamikochi, located in the Japanese Alps and part of the Chubu Sangaku National Park, is revered as one of the most beautiful places in Japan. In the fall it boasts a breathtaking autumnal display of changing leaves, while in the winter snow-capped mountains stand in majestic contrast to the winding river. It is popular with local and international travelers alike because the area offers access to both easy walks along the ice-blue Azusagawa River, more immersive mountain tracks as well as a range of day hikes.

 

Yoshino-Kumano National Park, Kii Peninsula

Located on Honshu Island, the Kii Peninsula is home to numerous World Heritage sites, famous destinations like Mt. Koya (Japan’s most sacred site), the incomparably beautiful Nachi Falls and the Yoshino Kumano National Park. Given the natural beauty of the rainforests, it’s no wonder that Kii Peninsula is home to these culturally significant locations. This strong sense of spirituality and incredible natural beauty make the Yoshino Kumano National Park ideal for forest bathing. Travelers can make their way to the park by flying on ANA from Tokyo to Nanki-Shirahama Airport and then taking the train and taxi. Alternatively, travelers can fly into Kansai International Airport and take a train or bus to the park.

 

Yakushima National Park

Known as a hiker’s paradise, Yakushima National Park encompasses two islands — Yakushima and Kuchinoerabujima — which offer distinctly unique landscapes. Yakushima’s ancient cedar forests, or yakusugi, and stunning coastlines offer an endless supply of places to immerse oneself in nature, while hot springs and a volcanic landscape await on Kuchinoerabujima. Hiking trail information for both islands is available at the Yakushima World Heritage Conservation Center on the island. The park can be accessed from Tokyo either by connecting flights at Kagoshima Airport or by taking a ferry at Kagoshima Ferry Terminal.

 

Add Serenity to your Itinerary

While typical self-care practices like massages or more culturally significant experiences like a trip to an onsen may have already made their way onto your trip itinerary, setting aside time to practice forest bathing is both a restorative opportunity and a chance to immerse oneself in Japan’s long-held value of spending time in nature.