When talking about life changing experiences as one of the core elements of Tourism 3.0, one of the most remarkable examples to showcase this concept is “forest bathing”.
Most of us has experienced how good it feels to spend time in a natural environment: the sounds of the forest, the water streams, the fresh and clean air, the sunlight shining through the leaves, or the scent of the trees bring us feelings of comfort and wellbeing. They help us disconnect from our often stressful reality, forget our worries for a while, relax and even get inspired and think more clearly. Nature also restores our mood and recharges our mental battery.
In Japan, there is a widespread practice called shinrin-yoku, which literally means forest bathing. It does not entail physical exercise like hiking or jogging. It simply consists of connecting with nature through our senses of sight, taste, smell, hearing and touch. It bridges the gap between us and the natural world.
Foresight studies predict that by 2050, 66% of the world’s population is likely to live in cities.
One of the good points about forest bathing is that even spending a short time in the forest is enough to create positive impacts on our health. It brings you into the present moment where you can de-stress and relax. Many studies have proved its positive effects in health, especially mental health.
The key to leveraging all the healing power from the forest is in the five senses: you have to feel nature through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet, by deepening your fingers and feet in a shallow river, smelling the plants with its flowers, listening to all sounds of nature, taking deep breaths to enjoy the fresh air, and thus changing your state of mind.
When you have been busy and stressed all week long, walking with a guide trained in forest therapy can help you feel more comfortable and relax. When you arrive, you should be given a physical health check and a psychological questionnaire to answer. The therapist then designs an appropriate walking plan for you in accordance with the results of the physical and psychological check.
With a guide you can optimize and better tailor the experience to your specific needs, but it is also possible to do the forest bathing without a guide. Beyond the guided or non-guided walks you can take advantage of the forest environment through many other activities: yoga, eating in the forest, hot-spring therapy, Tai chi, meditation, breathing exercises, aromatherapy, art classes and pottery, Nordic walking and plant observation. It is possible to enjoy the benefits of forest bathing no matter the weather conditions: whether it’s cold, hot, snowing or raining, the forest is welcoming us and gifting us with its magic energy.
The Japanese have known for many years ago that mindful exposure to the forest can be very beneficial for both physical and mental health. Now, more and more Western doctors agree.
According to Dr. Quing Li, from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, the practice of Shinrin-yoku can counter and prevent illnesses such as cancer, strokes, gastric ulcers, depression, anxiety and stress. It boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels, improves concentration and memory, and aids sleep. A chemical released by trees and plants, called phytoncides, was found to boost the immune system. As more research has highlighted the benefits of shinrin-yoku, the Japanese government has incorporated it into the country’s health programme.
Dr. Li, now president of the Society for Forest Medicine in Japan, is a world expert and has conducted numerous studies. “It’s a preventative medicine, not a treatment,” he told the Observer. His book Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing offers this advice for the practice of shinrin-yoku: “Make sure you have left your phone and camera behind. You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly. You don’t need any devices. Let your body be your guide. Listen to where it wants to take you. Follow your nose. And take your time. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get anywhere. You are not going anywhere. You are savouring the sounds, smells and sights of nature and letting the forest in.”
Gary Evans, who has set up the Forest Bathing Institute in the UK in 2018, explains that only mindful exposure to the forest environment can be considered as shinrin-yoku, unlike the usual promenades with pets or friends, or the sporting activities such as hiking or jogging.
A typical session might last up to three hours, beginning with an explanation of the science of shinrin-yoku. “Then it’s about sensory exercises,” says Evans. “We try to hold people’s attention in the present moment, to give their bodies and minds a chance to slow down. We move very slowly, touching the trees, looking at colours and patterns, and breathing deeply. We end up lying down under trees and looking up through the branches.”
At present, Evans’ Forest Bathing Institute is training people to become shinrin-yoku guides.
A study from 2018, carried out with a sample of 585 Japanese people, said that people living in cities were “constantly exposed to stressors” and that “urban living is associated with increased risk of health problems”, such as anxiety, depression and even psychosis. It concluded that “The psychological benefits of walking through forests are very significant … Urban planners should pay more attention to maintaining and increasing accessible greenery in urban areas. The beneficial effects of nature suggest a simple, accessible and cost-effective method to improve the quality of life and health of urban residents.”
Another study, carried out by King’s College London and published in January 2018, found that people’s exposure to trees, the sky, birdsong and other nature sounds and sensations in cities improved mental wellbeing. The benefits of the exposure to nature were still evident many hours after the experience.