>>>Let nature wash the stress away

Let nature wash the stress away

If you need to unwind, forget the therapist's couch. In Japan, the best way of beating stress is a walk through the woods with all the five senses on high alert.
A
llow nature to get into every pore of your skin.” That’s the meaning of the Japanese term Shinrin-Yoku, which is also the name of a therapy practiced by some three million people in across the Land of the Rising Sun. The formula is simple: a walk in the woods and direct communion with nature through all five senses. Listening to the rustle of the leaves, appreciating their colours, touching the trees and stones, breathing deeply and avoiding any outside distraction. No electronic devices are permitted to disrupt this connection. The walk lasts two hours and is sometimes led by a guide. At the ‘finishing line’, a cup of tree bark tea awaits us. It’s for the fifth sense, that of taste.
Forest bathing increases the activity of NK cells, one of the body’s first lines of defense.

A forest guide with a difference

In addition to organising forest walks, the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy also trains future guides. It’s a one-month immersion course followed by a six-month placement, to be taken in California, Massachusetts, Ireland, Ontario or New Zealand.

The first of the ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ walks – or Forest Bathing, as it also known – took place over 30 years ago (the term was introduced by the government in 1982). Originally based on Sintoist and Buddhist techniques, only recently have their health benefits started to be recognised: lower blood pressure, reduced glucose levels in the blood and strengthening of the immune system. Yoshifumi Miyazaki, an anthropologist at Chiba University, has carried out the main studies into Shinrin-Yoku. He collected data from hundreds of people at the end of their forest walks, and in 2011 reported that the therapy could indeed alleviate stress. As he explained: “Throughout their evolution humans have spent 99.9% of their time in natural settings. Our physiological functions are still adapted to them. In our day-to-day life, we can get a sense of wellness if we synchronise our rhythms with those of nature.”
The Japanese Forestry Agency has a network of official Shinrin-Yoku centres in 50 forests, and plans to create more in the coming years to meet the increased demand for forest bathing therapy. The Japanese countryside offers many alternatives that contrast with the hectic rhythm of city life and some businesses encourage their staff to take forest bathing as an antidote to stress.
Nishizawa Valley is part of Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park.
One of the most popular centres is in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, located just 90 minutes from Tokyo. As well as its numerous spectacular peaks, the park has the highest concentration of deciduous trees in Japan and is the perfect place to immerse yourself in nature. So too is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto. The sound of the wind as it blows through the towering bamboo stalks there has been voted by the country’s citizens as one of the “100 soundscapes that can save Japan”.
The South Korean Forest Institute endorses the health benefits of forest bathing.
Photo: Korea.501room / Shutterstock.com
And it’s not just in Japan that people are going back to nature for their mental and physical wellbeing. The idea has caught on in the United States, where the practice is being promoted by the Association of Nature & Forest Therapy, founded in 2012. The Association is active in Pensylvania, North Carolina, and California where it organises forest walking days. Likewise in South Korea, not all that far from Japan, short nature retreats are common. The National Forest Therapy Center promotes ecotourism and access to forest areas for a “dip” in the woods. Or, salim yok as it is called by the Koreans.

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