It’s not often I find myself lying face-up on a snow-covered forest floor, tracking bird flight while listening for the distant sound of water. Above me, the trees are silhouetted against a sky the colour of stonewashed jeans, the tips of the smaller branches silvered by the late-winter sun.
I am in Takashima, a small town on the edge of Lake Biwa, treating myself to the grounding experience of shinrin-yoku (森林浴 forest bathing) – a term coined in 1982 by the Director General of Japan’s Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Agency, Tomohide Akiyama. A relatively new therapy, originating in Japan, it has now been scientifically proven to confirm something we have always known in our bones: trees can make us well.
As our lives become increasingly fast-paced and sanitised, many of us are feeling disconnected from nature and from ourselves, as if something important is missing. People have long understood that spending time in nature, and specifically among trees in a forest, has a calming effect, but is only in the past decade or so that consistent peer-reviewed scientific results have added weight to the idea of it as a preventative medicine. This has subsequently led to use of the term ‘forest therapy’. Results point to increased mental wellness, boosted immune systems and reduced stress levels, heart rate and blood pressure.1
These effects are not only due to the calm atmosphere and gentle exercise, but also to actual interactions with the trees. One piece of research found that after a forest-bathing trip, subjects had significantly higher numbers of so-called natural killer (NK) cells, a type of lymphocyte that boosts the immune system’s defences against viruses and cancers – an effect that lasted for seven days after the experience. Further studies have suggested that the immune boost was, at least in part, a result of exposure to phytoncides, a substance emitted by plants and trees.2
Back in the forest, home to deer, monkeys, wild boar and bears, March has arrived but the cold season lingers; the trees are still dark and bare. Birds’ nests are easier to see when there is no leaf coverage. I watch a couple of feathered friends, nuthatches perhaps, hop from branch to branch in playful chase, and delight in having nowhere else to be.
Our guide, Mr Shimizu, is an energetic retiree with fantastic knowledge of the local flora and fauna. Head to toe in red, with a bottle of green tea hanging from his belt, he carries a stethoscope around his neck, for listening to water, of course. He is one of hundreds of certified Forest Therapy Guides working at official sites across Japan.
Shimizu-san has seen this particular trail in every season, and knows its secrets intimately. ‘Come and look at this moss,’ he calls, offering a magnifying glass. ‘And here, see how the snow has melted around the trunks of these beech trees? That’s their energy at work.’ He invites us to go slowly, use all our senses and notice the details of the world alive all around us.
Our therapy session had begun a couple of hours earlier. First, we washed our hands in a small stream, feeling the coolness of the water and listening to the gurgle as it fell over a low waterfall. A gentle hike took us to the base of a gulley, from where a 180-degree turn offered a view of distant fields and mountains. There, we stopped for water and roasted almonds, before our first silent exercise. We each had to pick a direction, and look first to the far distance, then the middle distance, then up close, to see how the same view changed, depending on what we focused on.
In other forest-therapy sessions, you might hear flute music, spend time in a hammock to soak in the healing power of the trees, meditate or go barefoot to sense different surfaces beneath your feet. It depends on the location, the guide and the season.
‘It is clear that our bodies still recognise nature as our home, which is important to consider as increasing numbers of people are living in cities and urban environments,’ says Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki, Deputy Director of the Centre for Environment Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University, who proposed the term ‘forest therapy’ to describe shinrin-yoku supported by scientific evidence.3
His research has measured the direct benefits of forest therapy, which include an increase in those NK cells, known to fight tumours and infection, increased relaxation and reduced stress, reduction in blood pressure after just fifteen minutes and a general sense of wellbeing.
‘It is not just forests that can have a beneficial effect on our wellbeing,’ Professor Miyazaki says. ‘Other natural stimuli, such as parks, flowers, bonsai and even pieces of wood have been shown to reduce stress, making these effects attainable for all of us, even city-dwellers.’4
In the end, I was glad I had forced myself out from my cosy futon when the moon was still high in the sky, to catch an early train out to the forest. I left relaxed and rejuvenated, and slept like a baby that night.
Writing in The Anatomy of Self, a classic book looking into the Japanese character, psychiatrist Takeo Doi made the fascinating observation that Japanese people likely feel so fond of nature because when they are in it, they don’t have to subscribe to any of society’s rules: ‘They become one with nature so to speak . . . From their viewpoint therefore they feel more human with nature than with humans.’5 I am pretty sure many non-Japanese people feel this way too.
There is great value in the scientific evidence which reassures skeptics of the benefits of spending time in forests, and official shinrin-yoku has encouraged large numbers of people into the woods, which is to be celebrated.
However, we should not be mistaken in thinking that you have to be on an official trail, with an official guide, to enjoy the healing power of the trees. I think we have a huge opportunity to take the principles of evidence-based forest therapy and let them loose in wilder areas. Walking. Hiking. Doing yoga among the trees. Climbing the trees. Embracing them. Talking to them. Sitting with our backs to the trees writing in our journals.
There is a lovely phrase in Japanese, kachō fūgetsu (花鳥風月). It literally means flower-bird-wind-moon. It refers to contemplating the beauty of nature. This kind of contemplation can prompt reflection on our own inner nature and remind us of our role as part of a magnificent whole, which puts everything in perspective.
My hope for forest bathing is that it becomes like yoga – a practice that is worth learning from a trained teacher, but can also be done alone or in a small group, away from too much structure and equipment and rules. Just you and the trees – or maybe you, the trees and your yoga mat – finding your own rhythm and deepening your connection with nature.
The forest invites us to open our hearts and listen.
The medicine of the forest is far more than a contemporary wellness trend. People have lived in forests since ancient times. Nature is in our blood. It’s in our bones. It’s in our very human spirit. It is the haunting call of the mountains and the swirling pull of the sea; the whispering of the wind and the secrets in the trees.
To me, forest bathing is not about doing something new; it’s about something we know deep down, but that many of us have forgotten. When you spend time in a gentle forest and experience moments of mindfulness among the trees, you feel held, supported, transported. It’s like coming back to an old friend, who will pull you in close and whisper secrets in your ear if only you’ll show up at their door.
In the modern world, we spend so much of our time shut up in sanitised boxes – in our homes, our cars, our offices. Taking time to step out of those boxes and get close to the wild outdoors sharpens our senses and reminds us of the preciousness of life. We sometimes need everything to be stripped away to reveal the true beauty. We need the simplicity to remind us that life isn’t all about accumulating stuff. And we need the birdsong and big skies to remind us that we are part of nature. Wildness is a part of who we are.
Top tips for forest bathing
Here are some tips for forest bathing among trees near you. Why not take a copy of this list with you next time you go for a woodland adventure:
- Walk slowly. Now slow your pace by half. And by half again.
- Be present. Keep your phone in your pocket.
- Use all your senses to explore your environment. Notice the feel of the ground under your feet, the taste of the air, the wind in the trees, the light and the shadows. Look up, down and all around.
- Cup your hands behind your ears to capture more sounds of the forest. What can you hear? Where is the sound coming from? Is it low down or high up? Is it near or far?
- Touch things. Notice how different bark, branches and leaves feel.
- Notice where things are in their life cycle. What is emerging? What is growing? What is fading?
- Breathe deeply. What can you smell?
- Watch the sky. Look for movement. Count colours. How many shades of one colour can you see? Stay watching long enough to notice changes.
- If you can identify what is safe to eat, taste a berry or a leaf slowly, and with gratitude.
- Pick up a fallen gift of the forest and look at it closely. What can you see?
- Spend some time in silence, even if you are in a group. In fact, especially if you are in a group. Try meditating, stretching or just sitting with your back against a tree.
- Lie in a hammock between two trees. Ask the trees’ permission before you set up camp.
- Take off your shoes and feel the earth beneath your feet or dip your toes in a stream.
- Notice how you feel when you are held by the forest. Don’t rush. Linger as long as you can.
- Find a particular spot you are drawn to and spend time there. Name it. Make up a story about it. Come back on another day, in another season, and see what has changed.
While taking a moment in nature, ask yourself these questions:
- How do you feel when you are being held by the forest?
- What stories of the land rise up to greet you as you stretch your arms wide and open your heart?
- What secrets might you want to share with the running river or the wise old tree?
- What wishes will you scatter in the woods like fallen leaves, to be carried on the wind to a place you cannot know?
- What promise do you make to yourself, on this day, in this place?
Note: please be sure to take the usual safety precautions when going into the forest. And if you cannot get to a cluster of trees near you right now, try putting cypress or cedar oil in your diffuser, or bring some plants into your home. (See Chapter 2 for other ideas on how to bring nature indoors.)
1 Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4997467/ Retrieved 20 March 2018.
2 Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20074458 Retrieved 20 March 2018.
3 Miyazaki Yoshifumi, Shinrin-yoku: The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation (London: Aster, 2018) p.11.
4 ibid. p.23.
5 Doi Takeo, The Anatomy of Self: Individual Versus Society (Tōkyō: Kōdansha, 1985) p.159.
Post by Beth Kempton. The above essay is is an extract from my book Wabi Sabi: Japanese wisdom for a perfectly imperfect life (Piatkus)