Magazine article New Internationalist

Forest Bathing

Magazine article New Internationalist

Forest Bathing

Article excerpt

The neon lights, packed streets and urban sprawl of downtown Tokyo are one take on modern Japan. But there is a quieter, less hectic side beyond the country's seething cities. More than 70 per cent of Japan is mountainous, and twothirds of the land is forested. So it is little wonder that Japan's rivers, mountains and forests play a central role in its spiritual and cultural life.

Shinto, the ancient ethnic religion of Japan, contains important elements of nature worship. Natural elements in the landscape - waterfalls, mountains and rivers - as well as earthquakes and storms are thought to embody spirits, or kami. Japanese mythology also includes tree spirits like the dryads of Greek mythology, known as kodama.

A century before poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge sought spiritual and social regeneration through nature, Matsuo Basho - , Japan's most celebrated haiku poet, renounced urban life. Basho - journeyed out of Edo (modern Tokyo) and immersed himself in the Japanese wilderness. His close observations of trees and forests in all seasons - from the aoba wakaba (green, young leaves of summer) to a crow on a bare branch in akinokure (late autumn) - provide enduring reminders of the fundamental connections between life, art and our nature.

Less stress

Today, forest and mountain walking remain popular pastimes. Every year, thousands of Japanese urbanites reconnect with nature through pilgrimages to the 88 temples of rural Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's major islands, or along the ancient forest routes of Kumano, which stretch across the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka. The popularity of Hayao Miyazaki's animated film Princess Mononoke (1997) has encouraged a younger generation of forest walkers to visit the Mononoke Hime no Mori (Princess Mononoke Forest) on the lush, subtropical island of Yakushima.

But the Japanese practice of 'forest bathing', or shinrin yoku, brings a walk in the woods to a new level of intensity. Forest bathing doesn't require a swim suit. It's about submerging yourself in the sights, sounds and smells of the woods.

A 2004 study from the Nippon Medical School suggests what many of us know intuitively: time spent in a forest lowers stress and promotes improved physical and mental health.

Based on these findings, some municipal governments in Japan are promoting certain sites as designated forest therapy bases.

'Experience shows that the scents of trees, the sounds of brooks and the feel of sunshine through forest leaves can have a calming effect,' says Yoshifumi Miyazaki, director of the Centre for Environment Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University.1 Participants are encouraged to immerse fully in the landscape, stimulating all five of their senses by experiencing the sound of wind, the heat of the sun, the colour of the leaves, the feel of the bark and the smell of the trees. …

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