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Japan's tradition of 'forest bathing' is turning me into a tree-hugger

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The concept of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, was first enshrined in Japan in the 1980s to try to get people out of the rat-race and into the natural world.

Living in Japan has turned me into a tree-hugger – literally. Whenever I’m in any kind of forest setting, I can’t help but wrap my arms around tree trunks. Cedars, pines, I’m not picky.

Walking through a park, I’m liable to rest my head on a barky surface. Going about my daily business, I trail my hands through foliage and rub leaves between my fingers.

Before you think I’ve gone mad, let me explain.

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In Japan, there is an established culture of “forest bathing”. It’s the idea that spending time in forests, or in any kind of greenery, can have a hugely positive effect on your psychological and physical health. It’s similar to the concept of a digital detox or mindfulness, but instead of just taking something away, it’s the idea of adding something: nature.

At its simplest, you can take a “forest bath” by sitting in a park for a while, doing nothing except listening to the sounds around you. Put your hands in a stream, stroke some leaves, just be at one with nature. But to get the full benefits, you should immerse yourself in a forest for several days, practitioners say.

The concept was first enshrined in the Japanese bureaucracy in the heady bubble years of the 1980s, when an agriculture ministry official began promoting forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, to try to get people out of the rat-race and into the natural world.

There are now university medical centres dedicated to forest bathing, where doctors often prescribe three days in the woods to people who are feeling overwhelmed by the city, and guided forest bathing tours once you get there.

It must sound strange to New Zealanders, where there is so much greenery even in the big cities. But here, where 80% of the population live in urban settings, people need to make an effort to get a good nature fix.

One of forest bathing’s biggest proponents is Qing Li, a doctor at Nippon Medical School and president of the Japanese Society of Forest Therapy. He says we suffer from “nature deficit disorder” and is trying to get people to rectify this.

He tells patients to go into nature and interact with it: touch the trees, inhale the scents, listen to the wind in the leaves or the birds in the trees, take in the colours. Even better, get your hands in the dirt. You will get nature under your fingernails, and may boost your immune system too. You don’t even have to walk or do any kind of exercise.

Li says forest bathing can reduce a person’s stress levels and blood pressure, strengthen their cardiovascular system, give them improved immunity and boost their energy, mood, creativity and concentration.

It might sound flaky, but medical researchers in Japan have found that people who spend time in forests have lower heart rates, blood pressure and sympathetic nerve energy.

It’s become more and more appealing to me as a concept as I grow increasingly fed up with daily life in a megacity of 35 million people. Whether I’m squashed into a subway car or sticking to the traffic lanes on the footpaths and stairwells, life in Tokyo is a constant battle to manoeuvre through concrete and around people; a constant assault of neon lights, sirens and loudspeakers.

So, yes, at every opportunity, I hug trees and stroke leaves. But unlike Prince Charles, I’m not talking to them. Yet.

Anna Fifield, a New Zealander, is Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.

This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.