Wind rustling treetops, lilting birdcall, sunlight glinting off gushing streams, and the scent of hidden blooms carried on the breeze—forests offer an immersive retreat for the stressed. The Japanese government has promoted the benefits of a simple walk in the woods since 1982; it’s even got a name, shirin-yoku or “forest bathing”. Coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, shirin-yoku is about basking in the atmosphere of a forest.
Scientists in Japan conducted experiments on the restorative quality of specific forests and forested roads, which were then officially designated as therapeutic (see the list here). One such base is the Akasawa Natural Recreation Forest in the Nagano Prefecture, about 255km/3.5hr from Tokyo. Akasawa’s forest of cypress trees and mountain streams is over 300 years old, and is celebrated as the place where the concept of shirin-yoku originated. Admission is free, and there’s plenty to do.
Visitors can walk down forest trails (there are also paved roads for those unable to hike) or take a train through the woods. Akasawa was once on a lumber route and still has a railway line that takes visitors on a 2.2km round trip for a fee. The prefecture’s Kiso Hospital runs a clinic within the forest that offers medical advice and recommends hiking trails. Every Thursday, it hosts a free medical check-up. The forest also has restaurants and a museum.
Studies investigating the benefits of forest bathing in Japan have been promising. In one study published by the official journal of the Japanese Society for Hygiene, researchers surveyed subjects in 24 forests across Japan. Participants in a forest ranked lower on blood pressure and the stress hormone cortisol, among other physiological symptoms of stress, than when in a city.
The best part about shirin-yoku is that it can be enjoyed by anyone, fitness no bar. It isn’t about going faster, higher or stronger, but slowing down to reconnect with our habitat. The Japanese practice emphasises that forests provide an ideal natural environment for human beings. So while you will need a visa to visit a certified therapeutic forest, you can start basking right here. Take a walk in the nearest woods or check into a hotel within a forest. Wander through at a leisurely pace, stop to run your hand over a tree trunk or listen to birdsong, or just soak in the scenery.
Akasawa Natural Recreation Forest is in Nagano Prefecture of Japan, 255km/3.5hr by road from Tokyo. The nearest Japan Railway station is Agematsu Station on the JR Chuo Main Line, from where it’s a 30-minute ride by bus. The forest is open from late April to early November. Daily 9a.m.-4p.m.; admission is free. The railway round trip is ¥800/₹530 for adults, ¥500/₹330 for kids (¥1,000/₹660 for adults, ¥700/₹460 for kids from late July-mid August). See this list of official forest therapy bases in Japan.