Forest bathing

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Forest bathing

Tina Burrett and Christopher Simons write about forest therapy in Japan.


Women in the bamboo forest garden at Hokokuji Temple in Kamakura, Japan. © Roni Bintang/Reuters

The busy centre of Tokyo is one side of modern Japan. But there is another side - quieter, not busy, away from the cities. More than 70 per cent of Japan is mountains, and two-thirds of the land is forest. So the rivers, mountains and forests in Japan are very important in its spiritual and cultural life.

Shinto is the very old ethnic religion of Japan. In Shinto, people worship nature. They think waterfalls, mountains and rivers – and earthquakes and storms – are spirits (or kami). There are also tree spirits, the kodama.

British poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, got spiritual help from nature. But more than a hundred years before them, Matsuo Basho, Japan’s most famous haiku poet, gave up life in the city. He left Edo (modern Tokyo) and lived in the forests. He wrote about the green, young summer leaves (aoba wakaba) and birds on a tree in autumn (akinokure). This reminds us about the basic connections between life, art and our nature.

Less stress

Many people still like walking in the forests and mountains today. Every year, thousands of people from cities in Japan connect with nature by walking to the 88 temples in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands; or along the ancient forest routes of Kumano, across the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka. Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Princess Mononoke (1997) was very popular so many younger forest walkers want to visit the Mononoke Hime no Mori (Princess Mononoke Forest) on the subtropical island of Yakushima.

But the Japanese ‘forest bathing’ (shinrin yoku) brings a new level to a walk in the woods. For forest bathing, you don’t need a swim suit. You enter into the sights, sounds and smells of the woods.

A 2004 study from the Nippon Medical School showed that if we spend time in a forest, we have less stress and better physical and mental health.

So some local governments in Japan have chosen some areas as places for forest therapy.

‘We know that the smells of trees, the sounds of small rivers and the feel of sunshine through forest leaves can make people calm,’ says Yoshifumi Miyazaki, director of the Centre for Environment Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University. People should listen to the sound of wind, feel the heat of the sun, look at the colour of the leaves, touch the bark and smell the trees.

It is stressful to work in Tokyo. Most people work six days a week. Companies pay people to take holiday, but there is so much pressure that some people are afraid to take time off. Schoolchildren study a lot too - many go to juku (cram schools) after normal school hours.

Too much work

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says that 22 per cent of Japanese employees work 50 or more hours a week. Only 11 per cent of people work this long in the US and 8 per cent in France.

So many people work extra hours for no more money and they have many different physical and mental illnesses. The Japanese language has a word karoshi, which means ‘death by working too much’. In 2013, 133 people died from something related to work eg. strokes, heart attacks and suicide.

For many people, forest bathing helps them feel better after working so much.

But this forest bathing might end soon. The government in Japan has spent a lot of money to bring jobs to the countryside. They have cut a lot of forest to make roads and dams etc. In 2014, the government decided to spend $52 billion on public works. Japan’s economy collapsed in the early 1990s, and since then the government have spent trillions of dollars on building and development. Many people say it would be better to spend money to encourage tourism in the countryside. This could help the economy and improve the health of the workers. Maybe time in the forests is good for everyone.

Tina Burrett is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Sophia University, Tokyo.

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