As I reclined on a wooden slab designed for camping tents in Mie Prefecture’s Ohboa Forest, two hours outside of Kyoto, I listened to the soothing voice of our forest therapist, Chiho. She instructed us to inhale, breath deep, and focus on the sounds of the birds chirping. I could hear the breeze moving through the leaves and feel the tiny ant crawling on my leg while my limbs slowly relaxed.
After a few minutes, Chiho instructed us to slowly sit up. My eyes begrudgingly opened and I felt completely calm, although a bit dazed. I sipped some water and then ventured further into one of Japan’s 62 healing forests for a restorative two-hour guided nature walk. Once inside the forest, we marveled at the towering cypress trees surrounding us and concentrated on our heightened senses as we walked over precarious wooden bridges, took in the views at lookout points, and smelled various Japanese plants local to the forest.
Within the last month, I had quit my job in the city, packed up eight years of my life in New York, and boarded a plane to Japan. In the midst of this upheaval, I got the news as soon as I landed in Tokyo that my grandfather had died. Forest bathing—the practice of healing individuals by immersion in nature that has been codified and trademarked as Forest Therapy by the nonprofit Forest Therapy Society in Japan—was exactly what I needed.
And I’m not alone. The attraction of forest bathing has caught on for visitors and is slowly starting to gain momentum for locals in need of relief from the daily pressures of Japanese society. In 2018, there were between 2.5 and 5 million people walking the healing forest trails and 1,200 certified guides.
Anyone can go and wander around a forest by themselves and acquire some of the relaxing benefits of being surrounded by nature, but our guide helped the process by guiding us in mindful meditation with aromatherapy throughout. Chiho plucked leaves for us to smell and taught us about the forest’s unique flora and fauna along the way. (For example, did you know that the phytoncide in cedar and cypress has been shown to have relaxing effects on people?)
While the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term shinrin-yoku—which roughly translates to “forest bathing”—back in 1982, the practice of Forest Therapy has been legitimized in the years since by the Forest Therapy Society. Starting in 2006, the Forest Therapy Society began officially registering rural areas in Japan that have been tested to have a positive physiological impact on people.
In order for a rural area to qualify as an official “Forest Therapy Base” or “Forest Therapy Road,” the Forest Therapy Society adheres to a certain set of criteria, which includes—among many things—whether or not the area contains harmful pollutants and how rich the natural environment is. It also evaluates whether there are disability-friendly rest areas and medical facilities nearby, as well as how accessible each forest is by car.
If the forest passes these criteria, then the society conducts physiological and psychological tests on 12 participants over the course of two days in mild weather to evaluate the forest’s effect on the human psyche and body. The subjects are divided into two groups, half of which go into an urban environment, while the other half goes to the proposed forest. Each group has their heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, mood profiles, relaxation levels, and stress levels measured. On the second day, the subjects swap locations where those same physiological and psychological measurements are retaken. If the forest is found to have a positive effect on the participants, then it added to the Forest Therapy Society’s list of healing forests.
Specific studies have shown systolic blood pressure and pulse rates dropping by several points and the body’s natural killer cell activity (NK) increasing by 53 percent in two days in these forests.
Science aside, when we left the forest at the end of our tour, I felt a burst of mental energy even though I was physically exhausted from traveling to the other side of the globe. The best part? I was notably more relaxed and less jet-lagged for the rest of my trip through Japan.
How to Go Forest Bathing in Japan
These certified forests are spread widely throughout Japan—from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south—with more being added each year. To visit the Tokai region outside of Kyoto, where I pondered life’s big questions, make a reservation with Inaka Tourism. With the maples reaching their peak deep red at the end of November, there are several Forest Therapy bases near Hoshinoya Karuizawa, a two-hour train ride from Tokyo, including Saku City and Shinanomachi.
Keep in mind that these forest sessions are not meant to be a hike or a climb, and there is a variety of nature walks for every level of fitness. Only some of the trained forest therapy guides and forest therapists speak English (we had a translator on our tour). Check for a guide with the specific forest through their individual website or contact the Forest Therapy Society for more info.