The guard shuffled toward me. No running, no running, he whisper-shouted, waving an orange baton in my direction. Clad in a navy-blue suit with a crisp white shirt, his face wore a genuine look of concern.
I slowed to a walk and replied, No running, no running. I nodded my head apologetically.
The entrance sign said “no sporting competition,” which was, apparently, lost in translation. I was not competing, just going for an easy run, but alas, the sign meant no running.
I’d arrived in Tokyo less than twelve hours earlier and was still adjusting to the time change. It was early morning at the Meiji Jingu Shinto shrine, which honors the Emperor Meiji, the 122nd emperor who is credited with rapidly transforming the country from a feudal state into a world power, and his wife Empress Shoken. It is considered one of the most important shrines in the country.
Paths meander around and to and from the shrine under a canopy of native Japanese trees. Nearly one hundred years ago, more than 100,000 trees were planted there. The Meiji Jingu forest is considered sacred and spans 172 acres in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. It was not only a beautiful and quiet space in the otherwise bustling city of 9 million people, but a seemingly idyllic place to run.
I resigned to walking, respecting the custom. My heart rate slowed. I breathed deeply, looked around and felt an overwhelming sense of calm. After a full day of international travel and a fitful night of rest, maybe slow walking was what I needed. I’m a runner who rarely enjoys slow walking, but this was why I'd gone to Japan after all—to experience the practice where it originated.
What is Forest Bathing?
In 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries instituted a national forest bathing program and has since designated a number of regional forest bathing reserves. Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is simply spending time outdoors under the canopy of trees. In Japanese, “shinrin” means forest and “yoku” means bath, or immersing oneself in the forest and soaking in the atmosphere through the senses, according to Dr. Qing Li, who is the president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine and one of Japan’s leading forest bathing researchers. His book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness (Viking 2018) was translated into English and published in the U.K. and North America earlier this year.
Nearly 40 years of extensive research shows a wide range of health benefits from forest bathing, including decreased stress, improved mood states, a variety of mental health benefits, improved vigor, reduced fatigue and feelings of awe.
Though Japan is a leader in forest bathing, wellness and nature studies, research is ongoing around the world. A pediatric doctor in Oakland, California is working to operationalize a park prescription program for her patients, researchers in the U.K. are continuously studying the mental and physical health benefits of exercise in nature, and the Nature Conservancy recently published a comprehensive report of research focused on nature in urban environments.
Even with ongoing studies, nature as a means to health and wellness is not entirely new. Long before scientific research and bestselling nature books like Florence Williams’s The Nature Fix and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, poets and essayists mused about the effect of trees on the human condition.
Waking, a new place
the big lake just steps away
a hum of insects
the constant flutter of leaves
light is bright—feels different here
(tanka poem by the author)
“Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree,” German-born writer Hermann Hesse wrote in the lyrical essay Wandering: Notes and Sketches. “He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”
And the American poet Mary Oliver eloquently says of trees : “They give off such hints of gladness. I would almost say that they save me, and daily.”
Most of us who love spending time in the outdoors can attest to feelings of wellness after a day in nature and relate to writing by Hesse and Oliver. But more than being in awe of nature, it is spending time under the canopy of trees breathing phytoncides that is most beneficial for physical health, says Dr. Li.
Later that evening after walking in the Meiji Jingu forest, I met Dr. Li in the clinic at Nippon Medical School where he works. Though there is an extensive body of forest bathing research, Dr. Li says he is most excited about his work exploring the effects of phytoncides—essential wood oils or the “aromas of the forest”—on the human immune system.
A 2009 study published in the International Journal of Immunopathology reported that phytoncide exposure in a controlled environment contributed to a “significant increase” in human nature killer cells, a type of white blood cell that is known to boost immune function. This finding is is consistent with results from studies conducted in a natural forest environment. Study participants were exposed to Chamaecyparis obtusa (hinoki cypress) oil through a diffuser in an urban hotel room for three nights while they slept. Phytoncide exposure also decreased anxiety, depression, anger and fatigue, though did not affect vigor. Dr. Li said the benefits can last up to a month.
I’d love to see this same test done with different tree oils, but Dr. Li doesn't think the results are specific to Japanese forests or trees. He suspects the benefits would be the same from all types of trees; however, he’s only performed research with oil derived from hinoki cypress trees. Most important is the size of the forest. The bigger and the denser the forest, the more phytoncides and the better the results, he says.
So, if spending time under the canopy of trees breathing phytoncides is the most important aspect of forest bathing, can I forest run? I asked. Surely I'd breathe plenty of phytoncides while running.
No, no running, he said.
I’d only been in Japan for 24 hours and Dr. Qing Li was the second person who had told me “no running.” Exercise increases heart rate and adrenaline introduces a stress hormone, which offsets the benefits, he explained. If you run a marathon every day and running a marathon does not cause stress, then you can run, he told me. But still he maintains that slow walking is the best way to experience shinrin-yoku.
“It is important not to hurry on a forest walk. It is not a hike,” Dr. Li writes in his book. “Walking slowly will help you to keep your senses open, to notice things and smell the forest air.”
I resigned to walking and left Tokyo the next day on the train.
The Akasawa National Recreation Forest in the Japanese Alps in Nagano Prefecture is where the first forest bathing studies were conducted by Dr. Li and other leading researchers in the 1980s. A bus picks up passengers from the old post towns along the Nakasendo Way in the Kiso Valley before making the winding drive to the forest.
A welcome center, gift shop, snack bar and medical clinic are situated at the trailhead parking area. Parking lot benches are situated facing the stream that flows by. The doctor was not in that day, but visitors can get medical diagnoses and forest bathing prescriptions from a physician or nurse twice weekly. Other days, forest therapy guides take first-time visitors on guided walks.
A guide is not necessary, Dr. Li told me, unless you do not feel comfortable outdoors or do not know the way. I set out solo, following the well-marked trails. The forest felt different there. For the majority of my life I'd lived in a dry climate: first in a city that was developed without nature in mind, and then in a small town situated between rugged high-altitude mountains and a high-desert. Simply walking in this forest in Japan, breathing the oxygen-rich air felt right.
Birds were chirping, the air was moderately warm and perfectly humid. Trails were relatively gentle and wide. The dirt felt springy as if my feet were being greeted with each step and gifted the same energy upon return.
At the beginning of the Edo period in the early 1600s, many trees were cut and carried from the Kiso Valley for building and construction in Tokyo. Most notably, the cedars that were used to build Ise Jingū, the most important Shinto shrine in Japan, were felled in Akasawa. A memorial plaque marks the stumps and visitors walk the pilgrimage trail to the site. Today the government prohibits the cutting of trees, and the forest is a protected area.
The Kiso Valley is home to five types of cypress trees, all of which grow in the Akasawa forest. Interpretive signs identify the various species describing the differences, which can be noticed in the color of the bark and shape of the leaves. I walked and stopped and walked again.
I found myself gazing up at the treetops and passing clouds until my neck ached. Eventually I lay on a bench and looked up some more. From that angle the trees were nearly silhouetted by the sun’s light. I wondered why the limbs started so high on the trunks. From the outside, I imagined the forest would feel dense, but under the protection of the tree canopy it was a different world, serene and protected.
“Going nowhere, as Leonard Cohen would later emphasize for me, isn’t about turning your back on the world;” wrote the essayist Picoy Iyer. “It’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”
Though I'd gone to Japan to travel, I was practicing the art of slowing down, going nowhere in this forest fast. Light shone through the leaves. Time slowed and I stopped thinking about running—I stopped thinking about anything.
Time slowed and I stopped thinking about running—I stopped thinking about anything.
All the while, there was the most gentle breeze rustling the leaves of a broad-leafed hoonoki, or magnolia tree. One leaf fell and grazed my shoulder. It felt strong and leathery, yet soft and supple like the vulnerable skin on your lips. It smelled slightly sweet.
Eventually I got up and walked up to a viewpoint of Ontake, the sacred mountain. The broad summit stood high above the rolling forested slopes below. For once I did not have the desire to run, to climb the mountain. It was nice to slow down, look around, just be.
I strolled back to the welcome center. In four hours I’d walked about six kilometers. On an easy day I can run that far, comfortably, in less than thirty minutes. I ordered a magnolia soft serve ice cream cone and spent the rest of my Japanese yen on hinoki oil before catching the last bus home.
How to Go Forest Bathing
Guide or No Guide
Many people will feel more comfortable forest bathing under the guidance of a certified guide, though it is not mandatory or recommended for everyone. If you are new to the outdoors and the forest environment, forest bathing with a guided group may be best for you. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides has an online database of guides in the U.S. Those who have experience in the outdoors and prefer solitude will find self-guided forest bathing to be the most enjoyable.
What to Wear and Pack
It’s best to go forest bathing in a moderate weather, so that adverse weather does not introduce stress or fatigue. Dress in loose-fitting clothing and in layers. Wear comfortable and sturdy shoes that match the terrain you’ll be visiting. Check the weather forecast before you go and be prepared for rain, heat or bugs as necessary. Bring a small pack with space for carrying extra clothing, snacks and water. Sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses are always recommended when spending time outdoors.
Where to Go Forest Bathing
The denser the forest, the greater the benefits, says Dr. Li, but any natural area or park with trees will suffice. Look for a quiet atmosphere, beautiful scenery, mild weather, fresh air and a forest with a good smell, Dr. Li says. Find a forest, park or nature preserve with wide, flat and gentle walking paths. Or, find trees in an urban park where you can sit and enjoy the environment. The key is to find a place where you can experience a natural outdoor setting, which may be different for everyone. Look for a place where you will be comfortable and relaxed.
Leave the Electronics Behind
Minimize distractions and let yourself fully immerse in the forest environment. Turn off any electronic devices and stow them away in your pocket or pack.
Engage Your Senses
Listen to the sounds of the forest. Look at the scenery surrounding you. Take slow deep breaths and smell the fragrance of the forest air. Touch the trees, feel the leaves and soil.
Walk Slowly and Stop Often
Forest bathing takes place at a slow, almost meditative pace. Take your time and look around as you stroll along on a forest path. Engage your senses and observe your surroundings. Stop every once in awhile and sit or look up and all around. Be still.
Read more stories related to forest bathing:
- A Dose of the Outdoors
- Shinrin-Yoku, the Art of Slowing Down
- Articles by Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, for the Co-op Journal: