In this post, I propose an alternative, slower and hopefully mindful way to travel in Japan: the ancient art of Forest Bathing. I share experiences from 4 forests I’ve visited in the country, and offer some playful tips on how to immerse yourself in the jungle.
It must have been mid January, as the winter began to seriously claim its space here in what is considered the north of Japan. I sat in my small room, holding dearly to the last remains of sunshine at precisely 4:32pm, when a passing thought came to mind: “I want to go to the forest!”.
Just recently, I’d visited Yamadera Temple at the end of November, catching the last glimpse of Autumn’s falling leaves and radiant colours. I reached the peak after the emblematic 1,000 steps and wondered if I, like Matsuo Bashō, would perhaps come into a moment of inspiration and speak life into a beautiful haiku. The poem didn’t happen, but creation did speak to me in ways more than one. The view, the peace, the pilgrimage, it all brought to my attention something I had taken for granted after living in Japan for almost one year.
Nature is all around us, but in Japan, it is an essential aspect of people’s daily affairs. Starting from the Japanese surnames that tell the story of where they come from, i.e. Yamamoto ( 山本, meaning “base of the mountain”) or Kobayashi ( 小林, meaning “small forest”), references to the Japanese landscape are present in art, philosophy, religion, and in general form the larger cosmology of Japanese culture. Unsurprisingly, nature is not only where people come from, but where they return to as a natural anti-dote to Japan’s increased urbanization over the last years.
I first traveled to Japan as a backpacker, and naturally, browsed through many intricate lists with activities and things to see in this vast country. However, moving here, and immersing myself into the landscape, I’d like to propose that travelers consider a small detour from bustling Tokyo and must-see touristic sites, to find and experience true Zen in the inner world of Japanese forests.
The Origins of Forest Bathing, or Shinrin-yoku (森林浴)
Although the concept of forest bathing became official in 1982, the idea of taking refuge in the natural world is a primordial human activity.
What separates the Japanese art from a casual walk in the forest is its commitment to making the experience pleasant, peaceful and inclusive. Several sites have been approved for the practice of shinrin-yoku, and can thus be designated “Therapy Roads” or “Forest Therapy Bases”. These forests minimize the discomfort one might feel from some arduous hikes, steep and slippery slopes, and the real or perceived danger of being attacked by another creature from the ecosystem.
In forest bathing, people with varying physical attributes and dispositions are able to leisurely and mindfully reap the benefits of nature, which include lowering levels of cortisol, regulating blood pressure, and increased mental well-being. While it is recommended that one soaks in the forest for a few hours, a 2018 study from King’s College London notes that even 20 minutes are sufficient to note immediate results.
It’s true that this art is preventive rather then prescriptive medicine, hence the rise and advocacy for “social prescribing”, a challenge to how we view our social ailments and treat them. If we broaden our understanding of what makes us sick, to include social issues such as unemployment, debt, and social isolation, forest bathing becomes an essential and accessible preventive measure.
Now that we’ve covered a bit of what this is all about, I’d like to share some of the forests I’ve personally experienced, and invite you to listen attentively to the many stories that reside in the ample Japanese natural landscape.
1. Hojuzan Risshaku Temple or Yama-dera (山寺), Yamagata
The Yamadera Temple is an ancient Buddhist complex. It’s built into a steep mountain between Yamagata and Sendai cities, and thus its name literally means “mountain temple” ( 山寺) In order to reach the peak, you have to climb approximately 1,000 steps on an intricately built stone pathway. 1,000 steps may seem like a lot at first, so expect to be greeted with various “Gabatte!” (meaning “good luck” in Japanese) from other visitors who will be making their way down.
High up above, a special reward awaits you: the Godaido, a wooden-built viewing platform, that allows you to look down at the mist-infused cedar-forest, and ahead towards the inspiring mountainside. It was on this platform that the famous Japanese Poet from the Edo Period (1603–1868) wrote:
ah this silence
sinking into the rocks
voice of cicada
How to practice Forest Bathing:
- Slowly climb the 1,000 steps, taking rest when needed;
- Play with all your senses: experience the leaves and trees, their colours, scents, sounds;
- At the Godaido, document your thoughts. (as poetry, a sketch, as you wish)
From Sendai: Take the JR Senzan Line towards Yamadera Station, 60 minutes.
From Tokyo: You can take a Shinkansen or a Bus to Sendai, and head to Yamadera.
Opening times: 9:30–10:00 am to 3–4pm depending on the season
Admission: ¥300 for Adults; ¥200 Middle School Students; ¥100 Primary School Students
Tel: 023 695 2816
2. Chion-In Temple (知恩院), Kyoto
I visited this temple for the first time on January 1st 2018, after missing the Joya-no-kane, the bell ringing ceremony that takes place on New Year’s Eve. Each year, 17 monks come together to strike the largest bell of its kind in Japan for 108 times, sweeping away all the year’s unfulfilled desires, and welcoming the new year with open arms.
While I chose to explore each of the smaller temples within the complex, and its beautiful natural pathways, there is an opportunity, if you have the time and will, to experience one of Kyoto’s most beautiful hikes. It would take you around two hours to complete a 3km paced walk through the woods, and you’d end up on the Shogunzuka viewpoint, with a breathtaking view of the Kyoto cityscape — and depending on the visibility on the day, you might even catch some of Osaka’s skyscrapers.
How to practice Forest Bathing:
- In the beginning of the trail, you’ll come across many statues, sculptures and Buddhist motifs. Take your time to notice and recognize them;
- Since you’ll be going up towards the view point, take time to stop, breathe and allow your body to adjust to the changing altitude;
- Enjoy the fresh air!
From Kyoto Station:
a) Bus: The closest bus station is Chionin-mae, at 5 minutes from the Temple
b) Subway: The closest station is Higashiyama Subway Station, at 10 minutes from the Temple.
From Tokyo: Approximately 2.5 hours using the Shinkansen
Opening Times: 9am to 3:30pm
Admission: Free (Charged if access to the gardens, or special viewings)
3. Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine(伏見稲荷大社), Kyoto
The Fushimi Inari Taisha is the head shrine of some thirty thousand similar shrines throughout Japan. It was established in 711AD, and has been frequented by people of all ages and backgrounds.
Once I finally ascended to the Inariyama holy mountain, I noticed a narrower pathway and decided to go for it. It seemed like a good way to avoid the busy Torii gates which, despite being beautiful, were immensely and understandably crowded.
Imagine my surprise, and happiness, when I found myself casually strolling down a Bamboo forest!
How to practice Forest Bathing:
- Once again, experience and explore your senses. The Bamboo trees are easy to grasp, so feel their smoothness and ply with the music inside them;
- Reflect and meditate about the relationship we have with Bamboo, specifically. In Japan, Bamboo forests are abundant, and were at times, a source and a site for art and craftsmanship.
- Bamboo trees can live as long as 120 years, but complete their growth in only 60 days! You can use the allegoric image of the Bamboo, and reflect about the foundations of your life.
From Kyoto Station: Take the JR Nara Line to JR Inari Station (1 stop)
Opening Times: Usually always open
4. Hiji Otaki Falls ( 比地大滝), Okinawa
This is my favourite place for Forest Bathing, because it harmoniously combines the peace and quietness of forests you might find in the Japan “mainland”, and makes space for a lush, vivid and dynamic landscape you would only find in other sub-tropical climates. Okinawa is a special place indeed, located in he Kyushu region of Japan in the south, it i the least populated of Japan’s remaining 4 islands. It is only 106 kilometers long, and 11 kilometers wide, but it provides incredible opportunities to experience both the misty green of the forests, and the refreshing breeze of the coast.
Nested deep within this forest is a 26-meters tall waterfall, an impressive and rejuvenating sight after a 2km trail. Unlike in the other forests highlighted in this article, the presence of other animals and sounds is experienced at a deeper level, thanks to the fact that human presence has been historically absent from this part of the island. You will most likely encounter lizards, turtles, small snakes… all of this against a backdrop of beautiful bird sounds and songs.
How to practice Forest Bathing:
- Explore your sense of touch: reach out towards the big tropical leaves and slowly recognize their different textures, tonalities, and edges;
- Breath in through your mouth sometimes, amplify your lung and join the rhythm of the forest;
- If you’re feeling playful, put our your tongue and allow yourself to “taste” the forest!
From Naha Bus Terminal:
Take the highway bus 111 or 117 towards Nago Bus Terminal ( 名護バスターミナル). Takes 90 minutes, and costs ¥2100
Transfer to bus number 67, and get off at Okuma Beach Iriguchi ( オクマビーチ入口). Takes 60 minutes, and costs ¥1010
Walk to the beginning of the trail: 20–25 minute walk
Opening times: 9am to 5:30pm