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

by Anna Fifield / 27 June, 2018
A woman in a forest in Japan. Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Japan forest bathing

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.

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.


The drama and the trauma behind NZ musician Shayne Carter's rise to the top
107207 2019-06-15 00:00:00Z Music

The drama and the trauma behind NZ musician Shayne…

by Mike White

Shayne Carter’s career has been wild and acclaimed. But his just-released memoir reveals the drama and trauma going on behind the scenes.

Read more
Rare photos of the Straitjacket Fits by Brian Murphy
The Handmaid's Tale is so chilling, you risk hypothermia
107150 2019-06-15 00:00:00Z Television

The Handmaid's Tale is so chilling, you risk hypot…

by Diana Wichtel

Season three of The Handmaid’s Tale packs a punch, despite some implausible scenes, writes Diana Wichtel.

Read more
Christchurch mosque attacks: Accused pleads not guilty to all charges
107204 2019-06-14 00:00:00Z Crime

Christchurch mosque attacks: Accused pleads not gu…

by Anneke Smith

The man accused of the Christchurch terror attacks has pleaded not guilty to all the charges laid against him.

Read more
One thing is certain: Political biffo is unavoidable in NZ Parliament
107183 2019-06-14 00:00:00Z Politics

One thing is certain: Political biffo is unavoidab…

by Bevan Rapson

Despite overdue efforts to improve Parliament's culture, political biffo will always be with us.

Read more
The sweeping proposal to lower speed limits is on the skids – it's a good thing
107144 2019-06-14 00:00:00Z Social issues

The sweeping proposal to lower speed limits is on…

by The Listener

Transport officials’ enthusiasm for a sweeping lowering of speed limits looks set to go the way of the once-proposed ban on cats in dairies.

Read more
Are New Zealand's intelligence agencies watching the right people?
107185 2019-06-14 00:00:00Z Social issues

Are New Zealand's intelligence agencies watching t…

by Phil Pennington

New Zealanders who feel they've done nothing wrong have found themselves under surveillance by the state and say they've been left nervous.

Read more
Never Look Away: A flawed masterpiece about life in WWII-era Germany
107122 2019-06-14 00:00:00Z Movies

Never Look Away: A flawed masterpiece about life i…

by James Robins

Epic drama captures an artist navigating the upheavals of Nazi and post-war Germany.

Read more