In late November, trees in Tokyo – the capital city of Japan and one of the largest cities in the world – are still relatively green. Three members of the IFTDays team (myself, Heidi Korhonen and Nitin Das), we have arrived to explore the concept of shinrin yoku that is gaining popularity in the Western world since some years now, and the role that nature and forest play in the lives of the Japanese people today. Our guide and friend, Dr Iwao Uehara has promised to show us his most important nature spots and explain further his approach to forest based wellbeing.
Over 13 million people live and enjoy the greenery in Tokyo metropolitan area of 2,200 km2 (Hosaka et al, 2016). However, the level of urbanisation is not equally distributed between the eastern and western parts of the city. While the western part of the city contains considerable forest areas (48.7%) and agricultural land (5.5%), the eastern part containing also the Tokyo city center, is highly urbanised and includes little forested area (0.1% of total area) or agricultural land (1.1%).
The area of urban parkland continues to increase in Tokyo, supported by the decision of Tokyo Metropolitan Government and individual local governments to establish strategies for urban biodiversity conservation through improvements in the green space quality and connectivity.
Though the heart of Tokyo is a beeping and flashing and teeming with people, quickly after entering the side streets where urban residents live, one encounters greenery in small, imaginative patches and calm soundscape surprisingly close by. Electric and hybrid cars form the majority of the motorised vehicles and people hurry along in their own quiet ways. There is little yelling on the Japanese streets.
Japan´s green gold
Outside of the city, in the greener western side of Tokyo where the elevation levels increase, the highest peak of most astounding foliage has already passed. Still, just two hours away from Tokyo by regular train, in the area of Okutama, vibrant colours of momiji (Japanese maple) and Ginkgo biloba offer beautiful views in the midst of oaks, beeches and Japanese cedars and cypresses.
Japan is a forest rich country: 67% of the land area is occupied by forest. Most forests areas in Japan are steep which makes harvesting wood in those areas difficult and expensive. Therefore, the majority (60%) of the forest cover in Japan is so-called natural forest where would does not get harvested (Huusko, 2019).
After the Second World War, Japan began to cut down its diverse and untouched beech forests to be replaced by fast-growing sugi, i.e. Japanese cedar and other cypress forest that were needed by the pulp and sawmill industry. Due to the steep landscape, from the 1960s onwards, Japan began to import more pulp and lumber from cheaper countries. This lead ultimately to the decline of Japan’s own forestry. However, forests, including planted commercial forests, which account for about 44% of Japanese forest land, continued to grow (Huusko, 2019).
In recent years, the Government of Japan has taken policy measures to revitalise forestry, focusing on the coordination and consolidation of forestry practices among others. As a result, domestic wood supply has been increasing. The plan now is to improve forestry productivity by further coordinating small scale forest owners and conduct forestry practices on a larger, more commercial, scale (Forestry Agency, 2017).
At the same time, a different trend has also begun. The Japanese, who are under the stress of competitive metropolitan life, are lured into the healing atmosphere of the forests to engage in different relaxing activities (Huusko, 2019).
Forest to help people with stress
The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries came up with the idea of shinrin yoku in the early eighties. Shinrin yoku stands for a forest bath, or enjoying the forest atmosphere in order to relax. Due to the relentless Japanese working culture, the stress levels of Japanese employees was running rampant already then and the forestry department saw a wonderful possibility that would benefit the stress levels of people and increase demand for forest cover needed by the forestry department. And so shinrin yoku was born.
Many westerners refer to shinrin yoku as the traditional Japanese practice of forest going. This is technically not true due to the ingenious idea of branding by the Forestry department. However, the concept of shinrin yoku does have its roots in the animistic beliefs of ancient Japanese religions. Shinrin yoku became embraced by people as it made sense in their cultural context where natural elements such as stones, mountains and trees have spirits. And so recognising forests as a source of wellbeing became embraced without scientific proof.
There is something to be said about the central role that Zen Buddhism plays in Japan. Zen Buddhism encourages the practitioner to learn to gather one’s scattered mind and stabilise one´s attention so that it can be easier to see things more clearly and with a new perspective. When some space is created between our experiences and how we react to these experiences, we are able to respond with greater wisdom and care.
While traditionally, Buddhist monks in India, China and later in Japan, traversed long distances to meditate in nature, in the recent decades the phenomenon of headspace creation has become known as restoration in environmental psychology. The Restoration Theory (Kaplan, 1985) and its closely connected Stress Recovery Theory (Ulrich, 1991) posit that our psychophysical recovery from stress starts within minutes of entering a green space. When the physical body has started to calm down – blood pressure stabilises, stress hormones in our blood decrease, muscle tension decreases – the mental health benefits also kick in. We start thinking more clearly, our feelings of vitality increase and our mood starts to lift. The urbanite can now exhale a sigh of relief, as the time needed in nature has been narrowed down to only 20 minutes a day in order to manage one´s mental health.
From Forest Bathing to Forest Therapy
Though the biggest hype around shinrin yoku as a concept quieted down a few years after its emergence, what remained, was the belief in nature´s actual healing effects on people, which a group of scientists then set out to investigate in 2004. A study group was launched in cooperation with medical schools, research institutes and companies to study the health effects of the forest. After the initial study, many more studies followed, to investigate more profoundly the results of the first study in order to apply it in practical use.
Since the early 2000, certified “Forest Therapy Bases” (shinrin serapii kichi) and certified “Forest Therapy Roads” have been established by the Japanese Forest Therapy Association all around Japan. Certification, in this context, means that the test walkers of the trail have been tested for their vital signs before entering the trail and right after returning from the trail. The vital signs include blood pressure and salivary amylase which are both affected when our bodies relax and the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, i.e. some of the health effects of forest bathing. Forest Therapy Bases and some trails have been certified in this manner.
The Association has also set out to raise awareness and promote the scientific results of the refreshing and therapeutic effects of the forest. The association is promoting the concept of shinrin serapii (translating as Forest Therapy) to the extent of protecting it with a trademark. Since 2005, the Japan Forest Therapy Association has had a commercial trademark for shinrin yoku, which can be purchased by local nature entrepreneurs for a license fee.
According to the Association, there are now up to 62 Forest Therapy Bases in Japan. These bases are owned locally by the small towns and villages in the sparsely populated areas. At the Forest Therapy bases, one can pay for a guided Forest Therapy activity. Forest therapy is also seen as a means of revitalising a declining countryside.
Okutama Forest Therapy Base
Okutama was the first area in Tokyo prefecture to be approved as a site for Forest Therapy. The entire 225.5 km² town of Okutama with a population of around 5000, is certified as a Forest Therapy Base. The therapy roads are always open, except for one, which is closed in the winter time. Tours organised by the Forest Therapy Base are available year-round on a reservation basis (Iwasaki, 2019).
Okutama Forest Therapy Base, that lies 2 hours metro and train ride away from Tokyo center, has a secretariat that handles all the planning, managing and coordinating of activities and employs 6 people full-time. On top of the full time employees, 30 people are registered as temporary guides at the base. Each of the guides has a different area of expertise, such as yoga, aromatherapy, acupuncture, Tai Chi, bird observation, etc. (Iwasaki, 2019).
The Okutama Town has its own guide certification program. In addition to basic knowledge of Forest Therapy, a guide should have knowledge of the local history and vegetation of this region. Several guides hold therapist qualifications of the Forest Therapy Society. The base welcomes a wide variety of participants. As the Association views Forest Therapy as disease prevention and not treatment, no seriously ill people will participate in the programs offered. However, some people come for rehabilitation after their treatment. As a company welfare program, Forest Therapy can be used for employee recreation, new employee training, and mental health management. Many people keep coming back after one time “treatment” (Iwasaki, 2019).
The Forest Therapy base Okutama has 5 roads and the longest of them is 12 km. The road is paved and therefore possible to access also with a bike or wheelchair. The roads are broad and in good condition. There are toilets, and some benches on the road. The signalisation includes also warnings of falling rocks.
Taking part in a Forest Therapy walk
Before a walk, blood pressure is measured and salivary amylase is tested by the secretarial staff. Only at special events, medical staff may accompany the staff to offer an expert opinion.
Most participants are people who actively enjoy walking in the forest and experiencing activities. Many people will participate for the purpose of blood pressure management, physical fitness, and making new friends. Older adults’ sessions in Okutama are conducted for health promotion purposes.
During a walk in Okutama, a Forest Therapy guide introduces the different tree and plant species, invites participants to smell different aromas found in the forest, to touch the trees and plants and even to taste some of them. The guides also share their knowledge about the use of the plants for different ailments. A group walk is up to 7 people per guide. For custom made walks, also one person only is accepted (Iwasaki, 2019).
The tour length (time and distance) varies depending on the tour, but walking for at least 2 hours is suggested and necessary as the movement happens slowly. There are five Forest Therapy roads in Okutama, the shortest one being 1.3km, the longest one 12km. One of the five roads including a monorail for wheelchairs, has been designed by a the staff of Chiba University. The other four roads were originally hiking roads, and are now registered as therapy roads. Most Forest Therapy activities consists of a day tour that combines walking with some other activities. The secretariat that is also registered as a travel agent, organises regular tours for tourists, but also custom-made plans are also available upon request from customers.
Becoming a Forest Therapy guide
Hiroko Itoi (49), is an editor and proofreader turned Forest Therapy guide. Hiroko lives in Tochigi city over 2 hours train ride away from Tokyo. She moved there after living 20 years in Tokyo and missing greenery around her.
A few years ago, Hiroko was still taking the train to Tokyo at 7 in the morning to return home at 10 in the evening. After some heavy contemplation, Hiroko stopped her editorial work that was consuming all her time and energy and started thinking about new ways to make a living. An avid nature lover, Hiroko looked around and heard about the Forest Therapy bases. She trained to become a Forest Therapy guide through a correspondence class that one could complete by distance learning only.
Those interested in becoming a “Forest Therapy Guide” or receiving the certification as a “Forest Therapist”, can follow the course in Japanese offered by the Japanese Forest Therapy Society and get their certification through mail. The course for a “Forest Therapy guide” costs about 350 euros (41,580 yen） and for a “Forest Therapist”, one needs to pay another 170 euros for the certificate as well as 250 euros for one overnight training. To be able to operate as a Forest therapy guide or a therapist, one needs to pay 42 euros a year and you are limited to work at the trademarked “Forest therapy road” or “Forest therapy base”. The certification of “Forest Therapy Guide” and “Forest Therapist” needs to be renewed every three years.
Hiroko´s not the only one who has left the city and its demands. Also Mayumi Ehara´s family moved from Tokyo to Matsumoto, a town of roughly 240 000 people in Nagano prefecture to bring their children up closer to nature. Mayumi´s move to a smaller town came with a lucky twist, and even more nature closeness for her children. Mayumi´s oldest son has Asperger syndrome and was having problems functioning in the class of the regular school. Mayumi heard about the Kujiragumo (the Whale Cloud), an outdoor school in Azumino, and decided to give it a try.
The change was immediate. The only challenge that Mayumi´s son experienced in the new school was the freedom of choice – in a forest school, a child can self choose what to do during the free play time. This can be challenging for a child with Asperger´s. However, at Kujiragumo there is time to try things many times and do things slowly and the the teachers wait patiently until a child manages to get things done, something that in a mainstream school there is not always time for.
Mrs Keiko Yoda started the forest preschool after working as a preschool teacher for 13 years. She wanted to move towards outdoor pedagogy as it was her dream. With the help of some of the parents of her to-be students, she was able to get a space in Azumino, another small town close to Matsumoto.
Keiko learned about the Swedish outdoor pedagogy approach that is popular in Sweden and Finland, Skogsmulle and i Ur och Skur, and learnt that “the things you can do indoors, you can also do outdoors”. There are nowadays some 500 registered Skogsmulle leaders working at about 50 pre-schools or voluntary organisations in Japan. They are altogether engaging some 12000 children a year following the Swedish Skogsmulle outdoor pedagogy.
Familiarising with Skogsmulle in Japan gave Keiko her the inspiration to do whatever she wanted outdoors. She built a base in the forest, cutting down as few trees as possible and created a circle with four logs around the fireplace. She started with 15 children who were between 3-5 years old.
After three years, the number of applicants to the school increased. Keiko had her colleague take over the first forest preschool and went on to start another one, the Kujiragumo, the Whale Cloud.
Nowadays, the school has 43 students, all under the age of 5. All children who enrol come from families in which the parents want their children to experience nature and value the development that happens in children when they get to play freely in nature. The majority of parents also say that their children have increased their strength, communication ability, understanding the circle of nature, have become more environmentally aware and have become more self-assured.
Keiko is convinced that simply being exposed to nature is not enough. Children need to understand the circle of nature first hand and through experiences. If children meet nature in their everyday lives, they have it as a basic understanding which will influence their future behaviour. “Learning about nature later on in school is good on its own, but not enough without direct experiences”, Keiko believes.
Many adults are becoming strangers to nature which further alienates their children from nature. What’s more, parents find it safer and more convenient to keep their children sitting in a stroller in the city, even when they could very well walk already.
However, sending one´s children to an outdoor school such as this one, is not a decision every parent can make. The school asks for extra engagement from the parents. The school day ends already at 14.00 after which time the children are tired and should go home. Most parents are not able to pick up their children at that hour. Also, in Japan the school payments are dependent on the family’s income. For low income families school fees are nominal. However, the Kujiragumo, although receiving subsidies from the Nagano prefecture, charges 36 000 yen a month (equalling about 295 euros a month) per child. This is an equation that for many parents requires more commitment to bringing their children to nature.
Commitment to nature was never the problem for Keiko. Her decision to start her own preschool was guided by her years of experience in education but also her own life and childhood that was lived close to nature. Her parents had and she continues to have a rice paddy to tend to, and tending to this paddy has been the introduction to the circle of nature for Keiko. According to Keiko, this is one of the ways a Japanese child living in the city can still be connected to nature – through the family´s rice paddy. Keiko is convinced it is good for children to learn and grow in “the environment of the past”. That is why they created Kujiragumo in a “Satoyama” environment, i.e. a forest near humans where people utilize the resources from forest like wood, mushrooms and plants while simultaneously taking care of the forest. Now, many of Satoyama are abandoned.
Caring for the forests, caring by the forest
These abandoned forests are the working grounds of professor Iwao Uehara working at the silviculture lab of Tokyo University of Agriculture. Dr Uehara teaches about tending to forests, but as a compulsory class, he is also teaching students how to conduct, shinrin ryoho, also translating as forest therapy.
Dr Uehara is a former special education teacher who used to take his students to forest and saw remarkable results in his students who suffered from diverse ailments. Later, Dr Uehara changed his field and studied forestry. He combined his former profession with his knowledge in forestry and in 1999, and introduced the concept of shinrin ryoho to the Japanese Forestry Society. According to Dr Uehara, his type of forest therapy is holistic and contains the idea of interaction between man and nature: while the forest cares for humans, humans also care for the forest.
Dr Uehara has conducted case studies on forest therapy´s effect on different target groups: children with post-traumatic stress disorder, people with dementia, people with depression, and teachers with stress. Dr Uehara´s studies have taken place in different forest environments and based on his empirical evidence, he also finds that the most beneficial benefits of forest therapy are in the wild beech forests which are richest forest in terms of biodiversity in Japan.
Dr Uehara believes in tending to artificial forests, not only for the aesthetic value that is valuable for us on a deeper level, but also for the timber that grows in a healthy forest with lots of light. Furthermore, there is therapeutic value in commercial forest or what Dr Uehara calls “artificial” forest. It is simply gained through a different pathway.
The artificial forests have overgrown over decades and have now become dark forests with little diversity in plants and animals. In these forests Dr Uehara´s engages in some light forest management works according to the health status of the patient. Patients get to thin the forests, carry the felled timber to locations which are turned into communal gathering spots, and plant new seedlings. Such physical activities outside can have a therapeutic effect especially on stressed out employees. Furthermore, for anyone, but especially people with depression, a boost to one’s self-esteem is welcome and this can be gained from the simple realisation of having helped a forest to heal.
Though Dr Uehara comes from the smaller town of Nagano, he also appreciates the parks in Tokyo e.g. the forest rich park around Meiji Jinguu in Harajuku.
Kou Hattori (40), the Chief Operating Officer of a Finnish design company located in Tokyo, is born and raised in Tokyo. “Shinrin yoku is a concept known to all Japanese”, he suspects. “The term is used just like sunbathing – Nikkōyoku” he says, and explains that everyone has their own interpretation and way of doing shinrin yoku.
Though Kou was not aware of Forest Therapy Bases in Japan, he has his own regime of nature “therapy”. He makes it his business to spend some time in nature every 2 weeks at minimum, at sea in the summer, and at the mountains whenever possible. There´s something moving about the sight of the mountains, which one cannot see behind the tall buildings of Tokyo. Though Kou tries to escape the city to the mountains every so often, he also enjoys the parks in Tokyo, his favorite one being the Shinjukugyoen, the national imperial garden and one of Tokyo´s largest parks. The park area is so big it keeps the noise of the city away. Not only is the area rich in species, everything is well taken care of. “Everytime you go there, you can actually feel the season around you”, says Kou.
Takeshi Sasaki (40) is sales manager of a Japanese trading company. He comes from the smaller town of Nagaoka but has lived in Tokyo for 20 years now, after finishing his studies. Of the two friends, Kou admits Takeshi is the one who is “closer to nature”. “He is the one to catch and hold a frog in his hand”, says Kou, adding that he would have less interest in touching the frog.
Takeshi paints a picture of shinrin yoku as “going to a forest on a sunny day where one would can soak in the high density of oxygen generated by the leaves and the air full of the negative ions generated by a stream of water. In the background one will hear nature sounds, like leaves moving and various birds and insects singing”.
Spending time in nature is important to Takeshi, and fortunately for him, he has found nature in and around Tokyo. “Although I live in a massive concrete jungle, I can feel nature when I run in the park, watching street trees. Trees and sunshine give us the feeling of the season”.
Takeshi plays golf. He´s been told by many that the nature on the golf courses is “very artificial and broken”. But Takeshi´s experience is different. Where he plays, he experiences being close to the forest, hearing the birds and seeing moles digging their way out from the ground. He has even witnessed a crow playing with a wild boar and monkeys on the cart road. “Some trees are in bloom, while the others’ leaves have fallen down. Clouds are moving, the wind is cold, but sunshine gives me energy”.
In late November, snow has already reached the mountainous parts of the country. Persimmon trees in the gardens and the temple yards carry ripe fruit and the peeled fruit of the season are hung outside to dry sending a message of winter approaching.
In Oku-Nikko, the autumn foliage is over and the tourists have left. In April, the town will fill up with tourists again, in search of peace and quiet and natural beauty. They will be lured in by the many natural wonders of this mountainous area: the temples, the onsen (hot springs), the waterfalls or the marshlands.
Plenty of opportunities and ways to immerse oneself into these healing environments exist, for those who need guidance and are willing to pay for it, and for those who look to walk their trails independently. The many ways in which this immersion is attempted, should make nature accessible to more diverse groups of people.
Japan´s culture, design and arts have been influenced by the country´s spectacular and abundant nature. Nature is seen as a valued source of restoration to which the well maintained and plentiful city parks also testify to. The Japanese have been able to capture in a word what many forest and nature lovers from all over the world intuitively understand. Shinrin yoku calls for immersing oneself in the healing environment of a forest by tuning in to the sights, sounds, textures and smells of forest, in order to return to our daily lives a little bit better.
Text by: Katriina Kilpi, Heidi Korhonen
Pictures: Nitin Das, Katriina Kilpi
Hosaka, T., Numata, S. Spatiotemporal dynamics of urban green spaces and human–wildlife conflicts in Tokyo. Sci Rep 6, 30911 (2016)
Huusko, Jukka.2019. Vihreä Kylpy. Published in Helsingin Sanomat, 16/11/2019.
Forestry Agency. 2017. Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Annual Report on Forest and Forestry in Japan Fiscal Year 2017 (Summary).
Iwasaki, Keiko, 2019. Correspondence with Okutama Forest therapy base.
Special thank you to:
Dr Iwao Uehera