“There is something in nature that can make us happy that is separate from the happiness we get from other things, like friends, or family, or music,” writes Dr. Qing Li, author of “Forest Bathing” and a leading expert in forest medicine. “When you feel that joy in nature, then you are truly forest bathing!”
Around the world, doctors and psychologists are starting to learn the health benefits that come from communing with trees. In Japan, however, the practice of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, has been bringing joy (and stress relief) to people since the 1980s.
Forest bathing is the practice of spending time in nature. It sounds simple because it is. The idea isn’t to exercise or hike, but to reconnect with nature. The experience is meant to stimulate all the senses as you walk, smell, see and even talk to trees. Forest bathing can last hours, but for busy workers on the go, it can mean a visit to a local park, as long as the phone’s away and you’re able to “savor” nature, according to Li.
Nature walks have long been part of Japanese culture, but research is beginning to emerge supporting their tangible health benefits. Doctors are even starting to prescribe forest therapy as it’s been scientifically proven to help boost the immune system; increase energy; decrease anxiety, depression and anger; and promote relaxation. This simple treatment offers huge benefits for those willing to (temporarily) disconnect from devices and refocus on the natural world.
And where better to try the practice for yourself than on the forested island of Amami-Ōshima? Eighty-three percent of the island is protected forest — and the rest is beautiful beaches and mountains. The island, located in southwest Japan, has both an airport and a port, making it easily accessible via one-hour flight or (lengthy) ferry ride from the city of Kagoshima.
To help you map out your relaxation, here are five spots to engage your senses while forest bathing on Amami-Ōshima island. With these ideas, you’ll find yourself experiencing what Dr. Li calls the sixth sense: happiness!
SEE history in the Kinsakubaru Primeval Forest
As the name suggests, this subtropical forest on Amami-Ōshima is ancient. Take a restorative walk along the Kinsakubaru trails, where you’ll see breathtaking flora and fauna like flying spider monkey tree ferns (above). The towering 300-million-year-old species is considered a living fossil for its prehistoric looks. Here, notice the fern’s unique natural patterns, or fractals. Looking at natural fractal patterns, says Dr. Li, can reduce stress by 60%.
FEEL the tides in the Primeval Mangrove Forest
Take a new approach to communing with nature by kayaking through 175 acres of untouched mangroves, the second-largest forest of its kind in Japan. Paddle through the low waterways between the tangled mangrove tree roots to fully immerse yourself in the woods. As the tide flows out and crabs scuttle by, you’ll have no trouble slipping into a meditative state.
LISTEN in the Amami Nature Observation Forest
For those hoping for restful bird-watching, the observation decks and trails here offer the chance for you to listen to the unique and invigorating calls of the Amami jay, also known as Lidth’s jay (above). As its name suggests, the bird is native to the island and found only there and Tokunoshima. The bird has a deep purple-black head and wings, and a chestnut body.
SMELL clear air on Mt. Yuwan
This is the highest mountain on the island, towering over 2,000 feet (for context, Mount Fuji is 12,000 feet), and is considered a protected monument in Japan. The peak offers a panoramic view of Yakeuchi Bay. Take a deep breath and smell the earth, soil and forest.
TASTE some sunshine at Materiya-no-Taki Falls
This gorgeous waterfall is beloved by locals and offers a perfect place to relax even further. Its name roughly translates to “the sun’s very own lovely plunge basin” because of the rays that shine into the foot of the falls. The warm sun and watery spray on the rocks stimulate the senses, while the plentiful negative ions of the falls clarify the mind.
Still curious about forest bathing? Buy Dr. Li’s book for additional forest-bathing tips and insights here.