With a head full of doubt, I step into Chizu Town Forest in the Ashizu Valley for a two-hour session of what a sceptic might term tree-hugging.
Located in Japan’s western Tottori Prefecture, about four hours’ drive from Hiroshima, the forest’s “therapy roads” are a deeply immersive experience designed to involve all the senses.
The idea of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” goes back to ancient Shinto and Buddhist teachings, but the actual term was coined in 1982 by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. While it might be easy to see it as hocus pocus, its health benefits are grounded in medical evidence. A 2006 study in Chiba Prefecture showed that the concentration of thestress hormone cortisol was 13.4% lower in subjects who spent 20 minutes walking in the forest. At forest therapy bases, trained guides take groups on walks via a series of stations, leading them in activities such as breathing, stretching and even attuning to stillness by hanging cocooned in a hammock.
It takes far less than that to make me a believer. At our first stop in Chiba Town Forest, my guide passes me a shoulder- height bamboo pole, its bottom end stuck in a raised hole in the ground. He asks me to place the other end to my ear. I hear the drip-dripping of water in an underground chamber and my eyes widen. I lean in, transported, goosebumps on my arms. Although not every station has such an effect, I can feel my movements slow down and my senses heighten. As we move through the forest, we are encouraged to wander, touch the velvety but surprisingly dry moss and witness the powerful waterfall gush white against the verdant cliffside.
My guide says there’s something about spending time in nature that brings out a child-like sense of wonder. As we lie down on picnic mats to take deep breaths and stare into the sky – pale blue juxtaposed against dark green pine trees overhead – I can’t help but agree.
Learn more about forest therapy in Japan at the International Society of Nature and Forest Medicine: infom.org
3 places to try mindfulness therapies
This Mediterranean-style wellness resort offers guided forest therapy walks in the Unesco World Heritage site of Angkor Archaeological Park.
Self-guided or fully supported silent recalibration is the aim at this retreat, located 80 km southwest of Cairns.
Guests at this private island resort can sign up for the Yogic Sleep programme that includes Sleep Ambassadors and mind- body therapy experts who specialise in sleep issues.
This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine