Agematsu Town arrival
I am getting so close to visiting the birth place of the practice of Shinrin Yoku, the dream is becoming a reality but little did I know I was going to be blown away by the reality that was awaiting. I had arranged this visit months ago. I contacted the Agematsu Town Tourism Association and Ms. Kazue Matsubara arranged everything for me. She was also the interpreter during the private Shinrin Yoku session because the Forest Therapist, Takashi Miura, did not speak English. I truly received the royal treatment, and this was my first time spending a few hours of quality time with native Japanese folks. This was my introduction to their famous hospitable spirit with a hint of childlike innocence. This is the way they are; they don’t put on an act for money or fame, this is what sits in their hearts and naturally drives their behaviour towards others. Did I mention I fell in love with Japanese people? Not today? ok, there you go…
They picked me up in a private car at the train station. Finding me was easy, like Kazue had mentioned in her last email, “It is easy to find us because Agematu station is small. I hardly see foreigners in the early morning. So, I can find you” and so it was, I was the only non-Asian person in the train, at the station and for the rest of the day…
They drove me to the forest base which is about a 20-minute drive. As we went higher and higher in elevation, we started to notice an increasingly colourful panorama all over the surrounding forest. It was October 20th, and we were getting closer to the Autumn Colours Peak around this area. From the beginning I felt like a VIP the way I was addressed and regarded by Kazue and Takashi. The price they charged for this private service with interpreter was very reasonable, so it was definitely not the money. I don’t think this factor even mattered to them, I felt very grateful.
Akasawa Forest at last
After quite a beautiful ride through this part of the Kiso region, we arrived at the “Akasawa Natural Recreational Forest”, home to Kiso cypress of 300 years or more, but is not an old-growth forest. It was planted in the early Edo period, and protected by the wardens of the Owari domain. The forest spreads over 728 ha, and varies in elevation from 1,080 m to 1,558 m.
There is an exceptionally large parking area plus an extension, giving you the impression of the number of people that come to this forest on peak season. The installations consisted of a few low-profile buildings. One of them has a medical clinic, a souvenir shop and seminar room where they hold nature & health awareness sessions with young adults. There is also a restaurant onsite. The clinic has a full-time doctor who performs a check-up before and after the walks. We went to the medical clinic first and they introduced me to the resident physician, who turned out to be quite a character. Everybody is in such good mood; it must be the trees!!!
It is standard practice that before and after a forest therapy session, they measure your blood pressure and do a saliva test which indicates your current level of stress. I was tested of course and found out later that only two hours of forest bathing makes a remarkable difference in these numbers.
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Akasawa Forest has 8 different trails, one more beautiful than the next. They all have different effort levels and lengths; one is fully wheelchair accessible along its entire length. There is also a train which tracks run along an old logging road. People with mobility impediments get to enjoy the scenery by riding this locally famous “Akasawa Forest Railroad”
More info and details on this website Akasawa Recreational Forest
When I lead a Forest Therapy walk myself, I try to discourage the use of cell phones, I ask participants to use them only for pictures. Here I had my giant camera equipment and took dozens of pictures as it was quite a momentous occasion for me. I tried to be discreet and timed my picture taking to the walking parts in between the exercises. I enjoyed the training and the entire experience tremendously, but it may have been somewhat challenging for the Forest Therapist. He was very chilled and very understanding, what I noticed was that he showed interest in the surroundings as if it were the first time he was there, even though this is his main working site. I took that as a huge learning point because I really liked that he, as a guide, made it a point to stop often and “discover” this very familiar place, together with me as a first timer.
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They took me on the path with the most points of interests and a great views of the train as it passes by. I appreciated that, so I could get a good overall first impression. I was also thrilled that this trail went by their featured grandfather Hinoki Cypress tree which is one of the oldest in the area at over 300 years old.
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Once we got back, we went to the clinic again to do the after-walk blood pressure and saliva stress test.
And the result is……
The stress level from the saliva test, which is done in a similar device to a blood glucose meter, also showed a big drop in the number from the pre-walk test result. (Sorry for the blurry photo)
Lunch & farewell
I had Soba (Buckwheat) noodles, the first of many times as it is Nagano’s signature food. This specific dish is called kakiage soba, which is a bowl of soba noodles served in a thin broth, with a handful of shredded vegetables in tempura batter on top. I also saw a sign of a dish (Pak Ha-maki, per Google translator) they make in early summer with those giant leaves we saw in the forest (Pak), rice flour dumplings (Dango) stuffed with red bean paste (Anko) and steamed inside these leaves… quite interesting.
After lunch, I visited the souvenir shop, very “dangerous” place, lucky that I had a strict luggage space budget; a must buy was Hinoki essential oil. As it turned out, many of the Shinrin-yoku participants back in our Bavaria forest sessions picked it as their favourite from a selection of various tree oils (We include a few drops of essential oil as a small sample on a piece of fabric cut in the shape of a leaf which we offer as a parting gift)
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Odds and ends
I decided to stay an extra day at the cabin in the forest. I had just experienced an amazing private Shinrin-yoku session in such a historical place, I wanted to savour it a bit more before I continued on with my itinerary. Lucky, I had an extra day before my next scheduled Shinrin-yoku session in Otari.
The guide and translator drove me back to the Agematsu train station where they bid me farewell very warmly, hoping I would see them again on my next trip. We followed up by email after my return, and I shared some of the photos I took which they really appreciated.
My Airbnb host picked me up again at Kiso Fukushima station to drive me back to the campground. I had a quiet late afternoon and evening walking around the forest. I asked for 5 more yoga mats because the Tatami was not my friend the night before. I gained additional respect for Japanese people being able to sleep on them with just one mat and no pillow…
Some people arrived late afternoon as it was Friday, so I wasn’t going to be all alone this time. Interesting group of “city people”, they were dressed as if they came straight from the office. It was funny to watch them fish at the small pond under the rain, umbrella in one hand, fishing rod in the other with dress shoes on.
To end this post, I wanted to add some images from a few interesting sightings and observations from the day:
Photo 1- I felt I had to take a picture of the group of city kids fishing. It was actually cute, because their demeanor more resembled a group of children, again that kind of harmless innocence that I noticed in general from Japanese people. When one of the girls caught a fish, there was a lot of giggling happening, and they had a brave one that was in charge of getting the fish off the hook for everybody. I felt very happy that they ventured into the woods for the weekend, kudos to them.
Photo 2- Very typical I thought, seeing this marker literally in the middle of nowhere. Dirt road under construction in the unoccupied section of the campground. There was a gap in the newly installed drainage grid, so instead of an orange cone, they put a cartoon character plastic figure. More evidence yet of their warm hearts and childlike innocence.
Photo 3- Back at the Akasawa forest, when I went to the washroom, I noticed this facility. A long way they have come from this type of toilet to the fully electronic, heated models of today.
Photo 4- Towel provided by the Airbnb Campground staff, I rest my case 🙂
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Next time, amazing Japanese heritage and history – Visiting the Matsumoto Castle