The Japanese have always found beauty in nature and knew intuitively that exposure to nature was healthy for people.
In the 1980s, the first studies were conducted to show that patients who lived in green spaces improved sooner than those residing in cities, and this gave rise to the birth of the concept of shinrin-yoku. Most Japanese have now made being in nature a crucial part of daily life, but many of us seem to have forgotten that virtue.
Science these days has irrevocable proof that trees are a powerful medicine, something different traditions had known instinctively for millennia.
Japan-experts Héctor García and Francesc Miralles published yet another inspirational book about Japanese culture that is worth a read!
After Ikigai, The Ikigai Journey (read our review) and A Geek in Japan (read our review), “Forest Bathing” dives into the history, philosophy and science-backed results of this Japanese way of living, that we should all know about in my opinion!
ABOUT THE WRITERS
Spanish Héctor García is a software engineer who moved to Japan in 2004. With a love for all things odd and geeky, he started blogging at kirainet.com (English version at ageekinjapan.com). Living, working and studying in Japan has helped Héctor to gradually understand the country and its people, and he opens us up to the generally reserved Japanese and lets us peek into their ‘universe’.
Francesc Miralles is a lecturer and award-winning author of bestselling books in the areas of health and spirituality. Born in Barcelona, he studied journalism, English literature and German philology, and has worked as a translator, editor, art therapist and musician. His novel ‘Love in Lowercase’ has been translated into 28 languages.
These authors both worked together on another book we reviewed (and HIGHLY recommend reading): The Ikigai Journey > >
ABOUT THE CONTENT
What Is Shinrin-yoku?
Before I dive into the key lessons from each chapter, let’s explain the concept of shinrin-yoku (“forests“-“to bathe“) and give you more of a forest bathing definition.
With most people across the world living in cities, it can be hard sometimes to connect with nature on a regular basis, but don’t you find that when you do (even if it’s for a short time), you can really feel it recharge your physical and spiritual battery?
Well, turns out that spending our days, weeks and months surrounded by concrete blocks, separated from the natural habitat of our species isn’t that healthy. Dûh! As the writers say aptly: It is “like being locked up in jail without realizing it.”
What is the forest bathing meaning? Well, the term ” shinrin-yoku” was coined in 1982. The director of the Japanese Forest Agency suggested that “bathing” in greenery provided very powerful health benefits to those who practiced it regularly.
Throughout the years, there has been many research done about some of the healing effects of this forest bathing and it seems that the lush embrace of trees not only helps us produce more happiness hormones (migitating aggression and sudden mood swings), it actually helps repair damaged tissue, lowers our blood pressure, slows our heart rate, relaxes and restores our eyesight, improves our digestion and even reduces the risk of dementia and increases life expectancy!
I’ll have some of that, please.
So is nature our best medicine? And if it is, then how can we get back to nature and incorporate its essence into our busy urban lives? Let’s find out.
PHOTOS & ILLUSTRATIONS
I read this book on a digital reader, but throughout the book you can find black-and-white photos and hand-drawn illustrations related to trees and nature.
Some of the concepts in the book, especially when explaining about the meaning of Kanji (Japanese characters) in the book are done through small illustrations as well.
The coloured nature photos you can see in this review are just for illustrating the text, they don’t come from the book.
Here are my favourite insights from all of the chapters:
PART 1: PARADISE LOST
OUR DISCONNECT WITH NATURE
In the first chapter, the writers set the tone by reminding us how human beings used to lived in absolute harmony with nature and its cycles until “they decided to fence in the fields and animals, build cities, and live in cabins that let in almost no sunlight.”
Oh yeah, we kind of did, did we? The sad truth is that a large part of the population rarely sees any sunlight or feels fresh air on their skin – and we cannot really blame anyone except ourselves.
STRESS IN THE CITY
In this chapter, you learn how there is a 40% greater risk of suffering from depression in cities than in natural surroundings. And apparently, the chances of suffering from schizophrenia double!
Living in cities, with their constant stimulation (noise, masses of people, advertising everywhere) is hypothesized to alter the way dopamine affects our bodies. Having a shortage of dopamine affects all cognitive and emotion processes. Studies have shown increased cases of stress, neuroses and even developmental problems in children when comparing those living in city high-rises to those living in outer-city houses or low-rise buildings.
I can totally relate with this, having lived in big cities such as Sydney, London and now in Amsterdam. Especially the sound of construction that seems to be going on here every single day, is slowly driving me mad!
BLUE ZONES, GREEN CITIES
Have you ever heard of “Blue Zones”? These are regions of the world where evidence thus far shows people live much longer than average. There are a few and one of them is the “Village of the Centenarians” in Northern Okinawa, Japan.
Not only do they experience the direct benefits of shinrin-yoku in these zones, they also grow their own food for their low-calorie diets, have an active social life and do lots of physical activity. There is a lot we can learn from them!
PART 2: RETURN TO THE GARDEN OF EDEN
THE BODHI TREE
This chapter goes into the story of Siddharta Gautama and how he became the Buddha after sitting under a tree and discovered that human suffering is cause by desire. The desire the have new things as well as to keep what we already have (attachment).
This bodhi (full awakening) teaches us that when we embrace the present, our suffering stops. Or, as the writers put it:
Trees embody the position and essence of the act of contemplation.
In this Japanese folk tale, we can learn that in nature, everything is transformed to make room for something better.
If you have the willingness to listen to nature, you can find serenity in your soul, harmony, mental balance, and new ideas for making any necessary changes in your life.
THE SAGES OF THE BAMBOO GROVE
The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove were a group of Chinese scholars, writers, and musicians of the third century CE. Their life motto was feng lin (“to depart from convention”) and they practised the art of qingtan (“pure conversation”).
Similar to the Greek philosophers, it involved debating on any aesthetic, philosophical or metaphysical subjects and exploring the meaning of life, the art of living and the feelings that make us human.
Chinese culture was a pioneer in holding spiritual retreats in the midst of nature!
TREES OF THE CELTIC FOREST
Another culture that gets looked at in this second part of the book are the ancient Celts. They also believed the forest to be the center of their universe. Through intermediaries such as druids or priests, the Celts conversed with nature and made appeals to the gods to ask for their favour.
Interesting is to read how they divide trees into three parts. Which you can see in the popular “Tree of Life” image: the trunk (warmth and food for survival), the roots (wisdom) and the crown (meaning and transcendence), and these parts also embody the three dimensions of humans.
This chapter also goes into the 13 principles of Wiccan belief, which is something I didn’t know much about yet.
American philosopher Henry David Thoreau decided to leave his home and live in a cabin in the woods for two years, two months and two days.
He believed that in the woods, we can gain true freedom of spirit, something we can’t get from the comforts of home.
Just as believers periodically attend the house of God, if we’re aware of what our soul needs, then we will need to return to the house of human beings, in fact, of every living being: nature.Henry David Thoreau
PART 3: THE SCIENCE OF SHINRIN-YOKU
WHAT DOESN’T KILL US MAKES US STRONGER
After the introduction in part 1 and history lessons from part 2, this section of the book goes a bit more into the forest bathing science.
We learn how Mithridates VI The Great began searching for poison antidotes by experimenting with low doses of snake venom and how this lead to the development a mixture of vegetable and animal substances he called a ‘universal antidote’ (“mithridate“).
We also learn that the Japanese have used nature as treatment for thousands of years. And that the Shinto religion places nature at the center of our existence, using forests as the temple where the faithful go to look for a cure.
THE HEALING POWERS OF PHYTONCIDES
In Japan, shinrin-yoku has been classified as preventive therapy, to help protect against illness, as well as reinforcement in recovery from operations or diseases.
The writers also speak about “Hormesis”, the beneficial effects of ingesting a substance that would be toxic at higher doses. Examples of foods with this hormetic effect are spices, garlic and onions.
We learn a few things from research from the 1980s, for example that walking in the woods, or gazing at green space in general, reduces the concentration of cortisol (hormone associated with stress and anxiety) in our saliva, that our heart rate is lowered after walking through or simply being in nature and that our HRV (Heart Rate Variability, one of the key indicators for measuring our stress levels) can be improved by relaxing, for example by meditating or … you guessed it: taking a walk in the woods.
It wasn’t until 2010 that research also found that NK cells (Natural Killer Cells) cells (a type of lymphocyte in our immune system) play an extremely important role in keeping us healthy since they can detect virus-infected cells as well as tumor cells – and they can eliminate them… and that just a weekend in the country-side has the power to improve our defense against cancer for at least one week. Wow!
PART 4: THE PHILOSOPHY OF SHINRIN-YOKU
We’ve reached the fourth part of the book and dive a bit deeper into Shinto and its connection with nature. Then comparing it to Western religion.
As we could read a bit in the previous chapter, in Japan, Shinto is an animistic ‘religion’ (although ‘lifestyle’ would be a more accurate description) in which billions of kami (spirits, also for a lack of a better translation) with specific powers that inhabit the universe and appear in any element or force of nature (such as mountains, trees and rivers).
This is why Shinto shrines are almost always surrounded by trees and built from wood. This is for the purpose of calling to the spirits residing there to come communicate with us. They form part of the natural landscape instead of dominating it. Whereas the purpose of Western religious architecture is often to make an impression.
Just like in Buddhism, Shinto comes from the Aristotelian physics where every object or being undergoes continuous change in order to become something “in the making”. Western religion comes from the Platonic philosophy where our reality is a mere copy of a perfect reality and God is creator, superior to everything.
The purpose of Shinto is to coexist with nature as harmoniously as possible, where the purpose of monotheistic religions is rather salvation and eternal life.
Typically, Japanese people celebrate birth following the Shinto ritual, marry in a Christian church, and end life with a Buddhist funeral. All these traditions are mysteriously interwoven.
Did you know that many Japanese arts are also intimately linked with nature?
Yugen is the term for the “mysterious moments in which, while observing the universe, our feelings reach the depths of our innermost, hidden core”. You can not only feel it in the outdoors, but also awaken it through the arts.
This chapter talks about Noh theater and Waka, which is the Japanese poem.
Another great Japanese term that doesn’t quite translate: Komorebi, which stands for the patterns of light and shade generated by nature.
When you focus on Komorebi, you enter into the subtle mysteries of the natural world and this is an excellent way to meditate!
You might have heard of the Japanese term Wabi-Sabi. It stands for something like “beauty is imperfect / incomplete / ephemeral” and teaches us that imperfection has high value, the fact that everything in nature is under constant construction (and thus never finished) and that everything in nature is born and dies, which is fine because if something were to last forever, we wouldn’t value it.
All together, you could say that Wabi-Sabi means something like “the aesthetics of sadness or poverty that gives us serenity of mind”, or in short: “The beauty of imperfection”.
PART 5: THE PRACTICE OF SHINRIN-YOKU
RETURN TO THE FOREST
Ok, so we know that being in nature is good for us, but how do we incorporate this in our daily lives? The good news is first that forest area in developed countries is growing (unfortunately, the opposite is happening in other places in the world, such as Africa or the Amazon Jungle).
In Japan there are now specific places (parks, gardens and wooded areas) that are specifically designated for practicing shinrin-yoku, and people of all ages are being encouraged to visit them and reap the health benefits they offer.
The following chapters will show you how you can incorporate shinrin-yoku more into your own life.
THE 5 STEPS OF SHINRIN-YOKU
- The first step is really quite simple: start walking and give yourself up to the experience, in the here and now. There can be no multitasking, so put your phone down and be present with intention.
- While you can have a route in mind, leave room to improvise. Don’t be in a hurry or worry about reaching a certain point. Stop and smell the roses, as they say!
- Breathing is super important, because every time you inhale, slowly and with deep breaths, you take in the rush of nature’s healing.
- Suffering from mental clouds? Let them pass by thinking of them like actual clouds. Take a break and do some stretching, tai chi or gigon, to help put your mind at ease.
- Finally, feel yourself a part of everything and everyone around you. From other humans to animals and nature, you are an important part of the universe, not something separate from it.
MINDFULNESS IN THE OUTDOORS
The Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh knew what’s what: “Mindfulness isn’t something to be confined to a classroom or meditation room. It can radiate into every aspect of our lives, even when we go for a walk outdoors.”
One of the purposes of meditation is to extend full awareness to all acts in our daily lives, so life becomes a constant flow whereby subject and action are the same thing.
When you meditate in nature, don’t forget to use all your five senses: What do you see / hear / smell, what can you touch and what does it taste like?
PART 6: SHINRIN-YOKU AT HOME
A GREEN HOME
While the best thing is to actually go out into nature, you might not have the opportunity to do this on a daily basis. No worries, because even from home you can practice shinrin-yoku.
Did you know that green hues have proven to be relaxing for human beings? Studies on the benefits of the colour green indicate that having some plants or even just posters with green in them reduces stress and even favor physical and psychological recovery! Talking about the benefits of forest bathing here!
Plants absorb noise and improve air quality (thanks photosynthesis!) and NASA even verified in several studies that plants capture dust particles (many that are harmful to us, such as benzene molecules) and send them into the ground under their roots to become food. One of the most powerful plants is Sansevieria trifasciata (“mother-in-law’s tongue” or “snake plant”).
Other ways for shinrin-yoku in your home is applying the ancient rules of feng shui and to make use of forest bathing essential oils.
THE SOUNDS OF NATURE
Always loved the sounds of birds, but weren’t sure why? Well, science continues to prove the therapeutic power of birdsong! Nature sounds quickly foster concentration and relaxation, because they are not repetitive. Even a recording can calm us down and elevate our mood.
A LEAF FROM THE FOREST IN YOUR CUP
Chanoyu, maybe know to you as the tea ceremony, is a great invitation to be peaceful and in the present, even when done informally with a friend or by yourself.
There are four key words that define the values governing the tea ceremony: wa (harmony), kei (respect), sei (purity), and jaku (serenity).
Paying attention doesn’t just allow us to concentrate and be aware of what’s going on around us. It also helps us be more present in our interactions with others.
THE 10 PRINCIPLES OF SHINRIN-YOKU FOR EVERYDAY LIVING
The book ends with a clear, 10-step forest bathing exercises routine:
- Bathe in Greenery Once a Week
- Live Mindfully
- Hug a Tree
- Listen to the Birds Sing
- Walk with No Direction in Mind
- Stop and Breathe
- Write a Haiku
- Let Wabi-sabi Inspire You
- Have a Cup of Tea
- Feel the Yugen
FAVOURITE FOREST BATHING QUOTES
More and more studies show the psychological damage caused by permanently turning our back on nature in an overcrowded environment.Hector Garcia / Francesc Miralles
No matter where we live, in the deepest recesses of every human being lies a desire to reconnect with nature.Hector Garcia / Francesc Miralles
Everything we give to nature when we devote our time, energy and attention to it is given back to us in abundance in the form of riches such as health, serenity and inspiration.Hector Garcia / Francesc Miralles
Our urban lives are so far removed from forests that returning to them become another extraordinary adventure which, though on a much smaller scale will always leave us transformed.Hector Garcia / Francesc Miralles
You didn’t come into this world. You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. You are not a stranger here.Alan Watts
Imagine you’re a traveler in a giant spaceship that is planet Earth. Visualize how our world crosses the stars. Open your eyes again and feel the yugen from the starry sky in all its splendor. We are cosmic travelers.Hector Garcia / Francesc Miralles
An attentive, compassionate person is fully in the moment while listening, which is the greatest gift we can offer someone who opens their heart to us.Hector Garcia / Francesc Miralles
THE TRAVEL TESTER RESULTS
This Japanese Forest Bathing book provides a fantastic introduction to a topic that you might have heard about in the news, but probably don’t know a lot about. This definitely applied to me!
Each chapter gives a great overview of the topic in easy-to-read, yet thorough descriptions of all the concepts that you could find a summary of in this article on the forest bathing benefits and a dive into the extensive forest bathing research.
I love how this book doesn’t just stay theoretical, it also provides you with the hard statistics from research all across the world.
While I found that their other book, The Ikigai Journey, was much more focused on continuous practical use, with all the exercises in each chapter, this book is focused more on the theory with a couple of guidelines at the end of the book.
All together, I would recommend reading this book for sure, especially if, like me, you LOVE self-improvement and are interested to learn more about the Japanese culture.
I can guarantee that you pick up inspirational thoughts and develop healthy habits after reading this book. I would say this also makes for a great gift!
Title: FOREST BATHING
Authors: Héctor García and Francesc Miralles
Publisher: Tuttle Publishing
Disclaimer: I received this forest bathing (Japanese: shinrin-yoku) book for review purposes from Tuttle Publishing. All opinions are 100% my own, as always.
JAPAN TRIP PLANNING RESOURCES
- Lonely Planet Japan – The most complete travel guide
- Skyscanner – Find the best flights to Japan
- Booking.com – Find the best hotels in Japan
- Sakura Hostel Tokyo – My favourite hostel in Tokyo
- World Nomads – Worldwide travel insurance
- Get Your Guide – The most popular tours & activities in Tokyo
- Get Your Guide – The most popular tours & activities in Japan
- ViaHero – Plan your Japan trip with the help of a local
- Magical Trip – Discover Tokyo, Osaka & Kyoto at night with a local
- G Adventures – Group trips to Japan