While the world is still unpredictable, now is the perfect time to nurture and replenish ourselves. We can learn from centuries of Japanese contemplation and wisdom to find balance within our bodies and with the nature that surrounds us, through the art of shinrin-yoku.
Shinrin translates to “forest” in Japanese, and yoku means “bath.” To practice this form of meditation, one must immerse one’s senses fully into the essence of the forest. The aim is to open one’s consciousness to nature so that healing and enlightenment can begin.
The best part of forest bathing is that you don’t need to be a mediation or Zen Buddhist expert to achieve the full benefits of the practice. All you need to do is give yourself over to your surroundings and let them teach you, bathing not in water, but rather immersing yourself into the forest with all five senses. My first trip into the forest wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t set a path or time limit, I left my phone and my camera behind, and made the deliberate decision to follow nature.
What struck me first was how the light danced through the leaves of the forest canopy above, casting intricate shadows. I was in awe of the maturity of the trees—they had sprouted hundreds of years before I was born and would outlast my fleeting time on this planet, which gave them a sort of wisdom. I heard the rustle of leaves with the cool breeze and heard the snap of a twig beneath my foot. In the distance, I heard the rushing water of a creek.
I reached out to touch the rough bark of a tree with my fingertips; I ran my hands over the soft moss on a nearby log and felt the youth in a tender shoot of undergrowth. I breathed deeply to fill my lungs and smelled the earth all around me.
I meant to stay half an hour, but by the time I arrived back at my lodging, more than three hours had passed. The forest, without a word, had taught me to slow down and really experience my surroundings with a new eye, a new patience, a new appreciation.
Shinrin-yoku began in the Akasawa Forest in Nagano, where kiso cypress trees were planted over 300 years ago during the Edo period.
It is said that a forest has beneficial effects on health due to the natural phytoncide compounds that plants release. The best times to visit are in the summer when young hinoki cypress leaves release their fragrance, or in the fall when the entire forest stuns with autumn foliage of red, orange, and yellow leaves.
Another power spot for forest bathing is the pilgrimage of Kumano Kodo, a network of trails that stretches across the Kii peninsula on the island of Honshu. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, travellers walk trails such as the Ohechi coastal route, which offers breathtaking views of the Pacific as you make your way to the Fudarakusan-ji Temple.
Yamagata Prefecture is home to the three mountains of Dewa: Mount Haguro, Mount Gassan, and Mount Yudono, representing birth, death, and rebirth. Located in the area where the Shugendo mountain religion is practiced, these are considered the first sites of mountain worship in Japan. In Yakushima Island, located 50 kilometres south of the mainland of Kagoshima Prefecture, people venture to forest bathe in an old growth forest that houses waterfalls and a 7,200-year-old Jomon cedar.
Forest bathing can be a way to pass a tranquil afternoon, or it can be made into a multi-day experience. Taking trails through Nagano forests allows for overnight stays in the quiet villages of Tsumago and Magome, which offer traditional ryokan inns. Or you can splurge at luxury destination hotels near the forest, such as Sankara Hotel & Spa in Yakushima, where the subtropical forests and the subalpine climates converge.
Every forest has something to teach us, so it doesn’t matter if you practice the art of forest bathing in the ancient cedar forests of Japan or in the woods close to your home, as long as you lose yourself to nature. Now that we can begin to explore the world again, remember to take some time for yourself to grow and heal in the forest.