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No one power walks on Forest Therapy Road in Okutama, Japan. (C. James Dale for The Globe and Mail)
No one power walks on Forest Therapy Road in Okutama, Japan. (C. James Dale for The Globe and Mail)

In Japan, healthy minds rejuvenate in healthy forests Add to ...

All I can say is it felt a little unnerving at the beginning. Not because I was walking on a trail called "Forest Therapy Road," or because I had just embarked on a "forest bathing" experience. What struck me as strange, was that I hadn't seen or heard another person, aside from my wife, for more than 15 minutes. Then there was the breeze, the sound of a stream and the sight of trees blanketing every vista. Tokyo - with its millions of people, traffic, trains, steel, glass, and the tiny concrete box apartment I called home - felt like a solar system away.

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Many of us have been forest bathing before, we just didn't know it. Forest bathing is translated from the Japanese shinrin-yoku, which has been defined as "taking in the forest atmosphere." While the good, old-fashioned term "walk in the woods" still applies in North America, shinrin-yoku has slowly made its way into the vernacular in Japan since a government agency coined it in 1982. More recently, Japanese scientists have started quantifying the impact forest bathing, and its more clinical-sounding cousin, forest therapy ( shinrin-ryoho), can have on humans.

"The purpose of forest therapy is to provide preventive medical effects by relieving stress and recovering the immune system [diminished]by stress," Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University explained. As Japan's leading scholar on forest medicine, he's carried out studies across the country. The results show forest bathing can significantly lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, along with blood pressure and heart rate. Other research points out that walking in the woods can boost the body's immune system by increasing anti-cancer proteins and enhancing the so-called natural killer activity of certain cells. In this case, it's believed humans benefit from breathing in phytoncides, the chemicals plants emit to protect themselves from rotting and insects.

"This proves that stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy," Miyazaki told me. "From a preventive medicine perspective, we can also expect a reduction in national health-care expenditure."

Miyazaki hopes his work will help create healthier forests and encourage better forest management. So far, it's led to the establishment of more than 40 forest therapy sites across Japan. The goal is to set up 100 within the next decade. One of the closest to Tokyo is in Okutama, a tiny town northwest of the Japanese capital, home of that trail with the decidedly new age name: Forest Therapy Road. My wife and I made it our destination one sunny Saturday morning, weaving through the crowds and darting from tunnel to tunnel in Tokyo's bustling Shinjuku station in search of the right train. Less than two hours later, the landscape had changed and a sea of skyscrapers had given way to a vast carpet of tall trees and lush valleys.

After our train pulled into Okutama station, we climbed aboard a bus bound for Lake Okutama, sitting among people with walking poles poking out of their backpacks. On the ride up the hill, I chatted with two cheery older women from the Tokyo area who nodded and grinned when they told me they were on a forest bathing day trip. Everyone, it seemed, was here for the same reason.

"I think it's great to get away from it all," said Naoto Okamura, also from Tokyo, who was on his first trip to Okutama. "[Forest bathing]is a chance to leave the emotional baggage behind."

The concept is simple, according to the experts. Humans have spent 99.9 per cent of their evolutionary history in natural environments. Getting back to nature is actually like a physiological homecoming.

So why was I feeling uneasy with no one around but the crickets and the birds and the solitary snake that slithered past us, prompting my wife to scream? It seems I'd adapted to life in Tokyo, had actually grown comfortable jockeying for space with 13-million people in an area less than half the size of Prince Edward Island. At the beginning of our hike, I found myself hurrying along, figuring the more kilometres I clocked on Forest Therapy Road the better my forest bathing experience would be.

"Slow down," my wife called out. "You're supposed to be feeling the energy of the trees, not rushing."

I focused on readjusting to my surroundings, and it started to work. I could feel the stress slipping away, and I'd be willing to bet my cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate all took a much-needed dip. I thought back to a conversation I'd had less than an hour ago with Yoko Tamura of the Okutama Tourist Association. She was at a loss to explain her take on forest bathing in English, so she simply smiled, put her arms out with her palms up, looked skyward, and took a deep breath.

"It's healthy," Tamura said enthusiastically.

It's also good for business. Okutama has been feeling a tourism bounce since it was declared a forest therapy site in April 2008. Tamura said more people have been making the trek here, and now around six thousand visitors come to the town on weekends during the fall high season to soak in the colours of autumn.

Despite Okutama's growing popularity, there's plenty of forest bathing room to go around, so to speak. With hundreds of trails designed for serious hikers or families with small children, we only saw a handful of people during our three-hour walk. As we were leaving Forest Therapy Road, Daisuke Hisamatsu told us he liked coming here because it still wasn't the top choice for day-trippers from Tokyo. He was tossing small rocks into Lake Okutama to the delight of his four-year-old daughter, and his wife was snapping photos, their infant son wrapped in a front pack and snuggled to close her chest.

"It's very important for them to experience nature because Tokyo doesn't have a lot of nature," he said. "I think shinrin-yoku is not hard to do."

It's also addictive, apparently. On the bus back down to the train station, I struck up a conversation with Canadian ex-pat Rod Szasz, an experienced hiker who said he's made the easy and inexpensive trip to Okutama at least 100 times.

"This is where I recharge myself," said the former Vancouver Island resident, who's lived in Japan for the past 20 years. "I was raised in the woods. If you don't get out into [them] you don't feel whole."

Whole was exactly how I was feeling after my forest bathing experience; well, almost. When Szasz said he was going to the store to buy a bottle of beer before the express train left, I eagerly tagged along.

A short time later, we were sipping Okutama's finest out of big, brown bottles while our train sped toward Tokyo. Szasz's map was laid across his lap and he pointed out the best trails in the area as the green landscape slowly blended into villages, towns, and then cities.

A dozen or so stops later, my wife and I parted ways with our new friend, and our forest bathing trip felt like it was officially over. But like any good medicine, it had taken hold. We were refreshed and ready for re-entry into urban life. Even better, we felt reassured that the next time we needed a break from it all, an escape was well within reach.

 

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