Question: In what would Japanese scientists tell you to bathe to achieve the most therapeutic results?
Answer: A forest.
Sometimes the oldest answers are the best, even for modern problems. Famous for its fast-paced cities and a work culture full of long hours and high pressures, finding ways to release tension is vital in Japan. And one of the most successful stress-busters is premised on ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices of meditating in (and upon) nature.
Shinrin-yoku, “forest bathing,” means soaking up nature. It’s not just taking in the view, but using all five senses, which requires actually being outside in a green space. At the same time, it is not about exercise, but relaxation: letting nature fill you, instead of you filling it with activity. Simply get out there, breathe deep, and take it all in. Japan’s Forest Ministry began promoting shinrin-yoku in 1982, promising that benefits would follow.
The authorities weren’t wrong. Since then, research has shown that practitioners of shinrin-yoku enjoy reduced stress and stronger immune systems. The latter benefit is the result of increased NK (natural killer) white blood cells, which sound dire but are vital in boosting immune reactions. Better still, that increase starts to occur after as little as 30 minutes in nature, which means you can still squeeze improving your life into even the busiest schedule.
Bathe in Beauty: Our 5 Favorite Places in Japan for Shinrin-yoku
- Hakone Open-Air Museum: Unveiled in 1969, the first open-air museum in Japan, Hakone Choukoku no Mori Bijutsukan (Sculptures of the Forest) capitalized on a rustic hiking path in Japan to create a serene place to contemplate both art and nature. Artworks are nestled among trees, flowerbeds, and ponds, with mountain backdrops further elevating the view.
- Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen Garden: The trees of the vast Kenrokuen Garden take turns claiming the spotlight. In the winter, massive pine trees (often strung with tethers to prevent damage) contrast with the snow. Plum tree blossoms kick off the first thaw, followed by flowering cherries as warmer air arrives. In autumn, red and orange maples clamor for attention (and photo ops).
- Kyoto’s Sagano Bamboo Forest: In the Arashiyama district, towering bamboo groves outline a path that seems to disappear into the jade foliage. One of the most sought-out locales in Japan for photographers, it is also a serene listening experience as the wind moves through the trees. The government included it on the official list of "100 Soundscapes of Japan.”
- Nara’s Kasugayama Primeval Forest: 620 acres of primeval forest near the Kasuga Shrine are a veritable eco-diversity hotspot. The forest is home to 175 varieties of trees, 60 bird species, and a whopping 1,100 kinds of insects. But the stars of the show here are the wild deer, considered sacred, which are protected by law and roam the woods freely.
- Hiroshima’s Miyajima Forest: Once considered a sacred isle to be worshipped for its mystical qualities, Miyajima is now a nature-lover’s destination. Home to a number of rare plant species, tucked among the dense firs, the virgin forests on the slopes of the island’s Mount Misen are the playgrounds of wild deer and monkeys (for whom shinrin-yoku is nothing new at all).
Draw deep from the well of nature on our Japan’s Cultural Treasures adventure.