Emma & Carlos met online, not on a dating App, as neither was looking for a partner at the time. Carlos in Canada, and Emma in Germany were practicing meditation at the very same time, his evening, her morning. This app, Insight Timer ™, let them know of this fact, but most importantly, it allowed them to send a message… “Thank you for meditating with me” at the end of the session. This is how it all started…
Emma began her meditation practice over 30 years ago, she is a certified MBSR trainer (mindfulness based stress reduction) and a trained teacher for Mindful Self compassion (MSC).
For the past 15 years she has taught mindfulness and self-compassion courses, coached individuals and run workshops in her own practice in Munich/ Germany (Practice for Mindful Living) and at various public Organizations and private Corporations.
In 2018, she became, along with Carlos, a certified Shinrin Yoku practitioner in England. She is a co-designer and guide of our Forest Therapy program in Europe.
Carlos comes from many places. Italian genes, born in Argentina, Canadian by choice and now living in Bavaria. No matter where he has lived, nature has always been a pivotal part of his life. Growing up in a vineyard, part of his family farming business in Argentina, he always spent most of his free time outdoors, among, and often on, trees.
Forests have always been his passion and fortunately he’s had the chance to “mingle” with a very diverse range of trees, like ancient eucalyptus specimens in his childhood in Argentina; maple, birch, oak and a extensive selection of conifers during his life in Canada and now, the European families of beech, chestnut, linden together with spruce and fir in his new life in Bavaria. His instinctive attraction to trees was then strengthened by learning about the Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku or Forest Bathing.
He studied Shinrin-Yoku techniques in England, Germany and Japan. He developed a Forest Therapy program influenced by his mentor Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki and his 30 plus years of research showing the overwhelming evidence on body and mental health benefits of “Forest Therapy” (Dr. Miyazaki coined this term himself back in 2003).
Carlos co-founded Universe Mindfulness with his wife Emma, with the idea of offering wellness escapes throughout Europe with the main theme of Mindfulness in Nature, guiding participants to become reacquainted with nature and to reconnect with it in a deeper and more healing manner than ever before.
We offer European mindfulness holidays in nature.
Our 3, 7 or 10 day retreat packages are made of two main components…
♦ Mindfulness Techniques
As part of the mindful escape we propose to you, which is the type of holiday that you won’t need another holiday to recover from, we will provide you with long-lasting tools to manage stress caused by daily life. Nature and Forests are our best allies, our Forest Bathing or Shinrin Yoku retreats will reconnect you with the roots of our evolution.
Mindfulness practice will eventually become second nature and will help you maximize your everyday life, even when facing major stressful situations, including illness and pain.
♦ Vacation component
Fun in nature among kindred spirits
Our venues are selected specifically by their nature as vacation spots, without the crowds and the aspects that make holidays more stressful than staying home.
Exotic and intriguing places where our participants can explore nature, culture and history, enjoy the scenery through Europe (and also soon Japan). We offer a family style, small group retreat experience, half day and whole day trips to nearby places of great significance, either by their stunning natural beauty or by their history and culture.
Our Vacation Retreats are full of activities for the mind, the body and the spirit.
Mindfulness training and meditation practice could become overwhelming on large doses in a short period of time, especially for beginners. We mix in some fun vacation time, with outings surrounded by natural beauty to provide a balanced experience.
The environment we select for each retreat will induce sharing and mingling, during the tours, during the meals, almost like a family enjoying the food and drinks in one large table. There will be ample opportunities and the space for solitude and contemplation as well.
Upon filling the Pre-Registration form, we would encourage a live interview via Skype with our lead instructor to ensure all questions are answered and to walk you through the entire program and daily activities. Give us a chance to help you change your life.
Für unsere deutschsprachigen Freunde….Schaut euch unser spannendes Angebot an, kommt und erforscht mit uns Natürlich Achtsamkeit
Black Forest Retreat – September 2022
During the past 2 years we have been forced to come to a complete stop in most of our mindfulness and forest therapy activities. We were in a long “hibernation” period so you did not hear from us much as the uncertainty reigned during this period. On top of it all, we went through 2 moves which kept us quite busy. As most of you all know, we are now based in Tuscany, Italy.
We are very happy to reconnect with you all and to let you know that this year we are able to offer a very special Shinrin-yoku long weekend retreat in the most beautiful part of the famous Black Forest (Schwarzwald) in southern Germany. If you’re planning to be in Europe around this time, please come spend a couple of days with us in this magical part of Germany.
Save the date: September 16-18, 2022.
This Weekend Retreat will have, besides our daily Forest Therapy practices, meditation sessions, basic mindfulness teachings and exercises, and mindfulness in nature sessions, all in the truly magical black forest. As for the holiday part of our Retreat we will explore the amazing treetop trail (Baumwipfelpfad Schwarzwald) and the impressive suspension bridge high above the forest canopy, where you can really appreciate the immensity of this natural wonder.
Check out the gorgeous place we chose, get all the details and pre-register here Black Forest
More news coming soon for other destinations, including the 7 day retreat in Japan.
Happy New Year!! Tibetan New year that is… The year of the Ox
We took some extra time off at the beginning of 2021 to finish settling in Italy and get our residence paperwork in order.
Now, we’re ready to resume our virtual travels.
Otari Forest, the chosen site for our next retreat
Continuing with our adventure in Japan, our next destination is Minami-Otari, where in 2018 I had booked a full day Shinrin Yoku, private tour with a guide from the Otari Forest Therapy base.
After my visit at the Matsumoto Castle I jumped on a train to Hakuba, my destination for the night. This is a world-renowned ski area at a much higher elevation on the Japanese Alps, where some of the downhill skiing completions took place for the Nagano 1998 Winter Olympics.
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I stayed here for one night, just 20 minutes by train to Otari. Not many lodging options as you go deeper into the mountains of northern Nagano. This was a beautiful place to stay, with its own indoor Onsen (Hot springs bath). I was actually the only westerner staying here among dozens of Japanese tourists.
All the Hotels I stayed in, in Japan provide clothing that everyone can wear in the hotel, but not only in the room, anywhere inside the hotel.
My outfit in the next photo, a Yukata (Summer Kimono) was provided to every guest, everyone in the dining room wore the same outfit. Quite comfortable and a great idea to get out of the street clothes.
That night, once again something amazing happened, during dinner, a buffet style setup in a comparatively extra large restaurant for being at a hotel. After you get your food, you need to call a waiter for drinks, I was struggling to get the attention of a waiter to order some sake. I didn’t want to start waiving, as I didn’t really know what was appropriate, and I had no idea how to call a waiter in Japanese. All of a sudden I see this couple, two tables over, that called one of the waiters and as I was trying to get ready to get up and call him after they were done with him, I saw that once the waiter came to their table, they pointed at me and sent him over to me. This really blew my mind, how aware people are there and how they volunteer to provide assistance to the poor traveler with a desperate look on his face… I bowed several times at them of course, as I had learned by now, the proper way of expressing gratitude in Japan, not just a salutation.
Later in the evening, I booked the private Onsen as I was not quite ready to share the public baths with a bunch of naked Japanese men. Bathing suits are not allowed in the Onsen pools. The private session was actually not expensive and it was great to get to know the place. Very well set up with extra size, wheelchair accessible bathroom, showering area and a sliding window to the outside with a view of the Alps, though I didn’t get to see them because it was quite late already.
Early morning the next day, I had to get to the train station by 7:45 the only morning train that would take me to Otari, my next Shinrin Yoku destination.
I basically had the train to myself, beautiful sunny day and only 20 minutes away, I could hardly wait.
When I arrived at the Minami-Otari station, I saw this girl holding a sign saying “Mr. Carlos Ponte”, of course that was Naoko, the guide I had been communicating with through numerous emails to set this up and also arranged the next day’s tour through a Buddhist temple and several Shinto shrines. The only surprise was that I was expecting a man, no idea that the name Naoko was for a female. In the end, it was a great surprise because I was about to meet someone so beautifully in synch with my views of nature, forest and even religion and spirituality that was a complete pleasure to spend two days following her guidance.
The best gift of this entire trip when it comes to scenery, the full fall colours and their radiant splendor where exploding that day here. The full day Shinrin Yoku session was much more than I expected, very insightful, warm and fulfilling experience. Naoko was very professional and at the same time it felt very comfortable like I was taking a walk with an old, close friend. To top it all up, an amazingly beautiful backdrop, you just didn’t’ know which way to look, as there was one spectacular view next to another. Our retreat is planned for the same dates, around October 23rd, so our group will be enjoying these views too. More info here: Japan Retreat 2021
Morning walk photos. (Click on them to enlarge)
Lunch and afternoon walk (Click to enlarge)
Next time: We will experience history and mythology on a Shinto pilgrimage route, the Togakushi shrines, surrounded by 600+ year old Japanese cedars.
This iconic structure is indeed a must see. Extraordinarily rich with Japanese history and heritage, you can touch and feel the past due to the impeccable state of preservation of this “fortress”, both inside and out. You can almost hear the noises of battle and the Samurai warriors frantically defending it.
The original Keep (main tower) and inner walls survived since their building began in 1590. This site was originally the location where the first fort was erected in 1504 called the Fukashi Castle.
I will share in this post my experience visiting this gem of the past but there is so much history in this city and site that is worth reading more about it here: Matsumoto Castle – Wikipedia
A local’s lead
I was very fortunate to ask the Airbnb campground guys for ideas of what to do during my extra day on my way to Otari (where my next Shinrin-yoku private session will take place). Great recommendation as it was on the way along the same train line. I could spend most of the day with lots of time to jump back on a train and make it in time for dinner at the place where I was staying for the night.
Matsumoto is a city also located in Nagano Prefecture. As of March 2019, the city had a population of 239,466 and a population density of 240 persons per km². Much lower than Tokyo, of course, at 6,158 persons per km². This certainly shows in the pictures I took walking from the train station to the castle. It wasn’t that early, just after 10:00 am, but the streets appeared almost empty.
Another observation was the textured sidewalks to assist the visually impaired, who use walking sticks. I noticed them in Tokyo, practically everywhere the public is allowed, including underground passages and not just in high traffic areas. The patterns on the floor change to indicate walking direction, intersections and stop or caution spots.
The infrastructure for disabled people is exemplary in Japan. It was interesting that in my two weeks in different major and smaller cities that I visited; I did not see a single visually impaired person walking on the streets. I thought that maybe the reason for globally incorporating this physical assistance in the infrastructure may be due to a possible large number of visually impaired persons in Japan, which did not appear to be the case. More kudos for the inclusion of impaired folks in their city planning, again, that Japanese empathy showing.
Some images during my walk to the castle (click to enlarge)
The Castle, just WOW
This place just blew my mind the moment I caught a view of the castle and surroundings as I was approaching on foot. That stereotypical image of a giant, curved eaves, pagoda style building just materialized in front of me. This structure had no ornamental purpose though, it was basically a fortress and used to host a small army of samurai warriors protecting the leaders of the Matsumoto Domain. The building was also known as the “Crow Castle” due to its black exterior. I’m sure it was designed to appear deterring and unconquerable as its first line of defense.
I saw a lot of people sitting around the moat, which in one end is more of a lagoon than a moat. Many families just lounging around and having a picnic there, once I got closer, I noticed that at least one family member was either drawing or painting the “Keep” (main tower). This appeared to be a popular pastime for local visitors.
Click images to enlarge
Of course, I visited inside, long lineup but definitely worth it. Lucky, I had the chance to put my luggage in a locker because the stairs inside the castle are Samurai warrior steep!
It was very impressive inside as well. The first floor is an open concept design to allow the warriors run towards the windows they needed to defend without obstructions. You can almost imagine these warriors running back and forth and up and down the stairs during an attempted siege.
There is also a museum showing period weapons, parts of the original building, coins etc. The view from the top floor is not only amazing, it shows how tall this tower is. The image taken from the top floor also shows the outline of the original complex ca 1504 marked on the grass if you look closely.
Click images to enlarge
Next time: my favourite Shinrin-yoku spot, Otari. This is the location I chose for our upcoming retreat, you’ll see why!
Happy and safe New Years to all of you. We’ll see you all in 2021… with more virtual Japan and we will also be announcing our plans for the upcoming year.
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.
Click to enlarge
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.
Click to enlarge
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
Sorry for the extended hiatus. We were finishing up our move to Italy and it took more time and focus than expected due to Covid-19 implications. We were fortunate though, as we were well prepared, had Covid tests done before we left and all the paper work we may have needed. In the end, nobody stopped us during the two trips we took with our furniture and other household items. We drove twice from Germany, on consecutive Sundays, it was really spooky to see the highway through the Alps, which is normally packed with traffic, completely empty.
Anyway, back to Japan…. Day 3.
My first JR train experience was a breeze
The App I recommended in an earlier post was indeed amazing, it tracks in real time all the trains along your route so you can make transfers very quickly, it even tells you which track or platform to go to, even if there was a last minute change.
I arrived at Kiso Fukushima the day before my first Shirin-Yoku private experience. I picked a very appropriate spot to spend the night, a cabin campground in the middle of the forest at Kiso, one train station before Agematsu, where the Akasawa forest, birthplace of Shinrin-yoku is located.
I booked this spot through AirBnB. The host picked me up at the train station because their campground is of course located quite a ways away from the town and there is no public transportation available. We stopped by a store on the way to buy some food since the campground did not sale any.
It was really a beautiful spot and a great way to immerse myself into the natural environment of Nagano prefecture and got to know their amazing Kiso-Hinoki tree. I also learned a few interesting things…
The wooden cabins were small, basically the size of a large tent with bunk beds. They had a large porch which was great since it was raining the first evening. They had sliding doors in the front and a window in the back. Well distributed and not very crowded so you got the feeling of full forest immersion. There was a small pond, stocked with fish. To heat up the cabin there was a small kerosene heater. The smell took me back to my childhood in Argentina, but it got old pretty quick. After a short time, I had to open the window a bit more to let some fresh (and quite cold) air in. The bunk bed “mattress” was a tatami mat. This was my introduction to sleeping on one. The bed gear consisted of a very thin yoga mat and a sleeping bag, no pillow.
I noticed that the entire camp was empty as it was the middle of the week, and the staff left before sundown, so I was there all by myself. I had a small “what if” moment, but it quickly vanished after I had a sip or two of the Sake I picked up at the store. I spent a genuinely nice time alone, getting acquainted with the Japanese forest, listening to the rain, enjoying the wood’s bright wet smells and the taste of the local rice wine. All was well.
Later I zapped my dinner at the shop’s outdoor cooking area and setup the “table” on the bottom bed as the cabin had no actual table or chair.
I guess it was some sort of “glamping” experience I was having. It was wet and chilly outside, the most important part was that the bathrooms, though in the middle of the woods, had the now famous heated toilets which I was growing so fond of…
Tomorrow was a big day, the next morning, the campground keeper was going to take me back down to the train station. I will take the 9:00 am train to Agematsu town where staff from the Akasawa Forest Therapy Centre were picking me up. I was quite pumped that I was going to the very place where Shinrin-yoku was first practiced over 30 years ago.
Next, arrival to Agematsu station and the Shirin yoku session in Akasawa forest, where I was treated like a king.
Breakfast Hotdog anyone?
Every day offers a new discovery in such a unique culture as Japan’s, and I love the amazing opportunity to get to know more about what the locals do and what their regular day looks like.
The first surprise was the breakfast menu at the Hotel Henn-na, “The Hotdog Morning Plate”, with toppings that included Sauerkraut and relish. It was either this or a bowl of noodles, which I later found out to be regularly offered everywhere for breakfast (and lunch and dinner). I got to enjoy hot coffee, for the last time in a while. I also later found out, it would be quite difficult to find a place which sold hot coffee in the mornings. I’ll show you what I ended up drinking straight out of one of the millions of vending machines you find EVERYWHERE, selling EVERYTHING imaginable.
Anyhow, I am not a picky eater and always welcome a new experience, especially in the culinary world. I opted for the hotdog platter, and it was indeed delicious. I have lived in Germany now for 3+ years so I know my Wieners and Franks 😉
My body still didn’t know what meal of the day I was having, so no problems whatsoever having a hotdog for breakfast…
A quick sightseeing walk around – 歩き回る
Today’s schedule included a quick walk around through this area of Tokyo before I took the bullet train. I picked this area near Hamamatsuchō Station because it was fairly central and easy to travel from to the Tokyo train station. This was later today, my departure point to Kiso-Fukushima, in Nagano Prefecture, my next stop.
1- Japanese people seem to smoke a lot, at least this was my impression so far in Tokyo. After I quit smoking almost two decades ago, I became extremely allergic and somehow a crusader against smoking. Having lived in Calgary and working downtown where these days you’re not able to walk down the street without navigating through heavy puffs of cigarette smoke and vaping, I was elated to see this, a especially assigned outdoor smoking area!!
People can’t seem to just smoke anywhere in the city just because they’re outside. Huh!?! what is this crazy concept!! Yes, they do it in these designated areas on the side walks and some other, well marked, large open spaces, and get this, actually far away from buildings’ entrance doors, so the smoke doesn’t get blown inside by the wind. Revolutionary concept! who would have thought 😮 (Sarcasm)
Anyway, brilliant idea, I am not sure if it is mandatory or voluntary though, as the second would go very much in line with the empathic Japanese ways.
2- Another thing that got my attention was the extreme care about pedestrian safety on the streets, for example there was a construction zone right next to the Hotel which I only realized it was there after I saw it from above, from the hotel room’s window. I had walked right by it the day before and because of the very high, solid white wall around it, which looked like a permanent fixture on the side of the building, you couldn’t even guess there was a hole in the ground and heavy excavation equipment behind it. Not only there was no chance of any debris flying onto the street, but it did not look at all like a construction zone from outside, and no traces of mud or dirt outside it on the street or sidewalk either.
A few streets over, there was a crane-truck parked temporarily by another construction site. I noticed the yellow cones around the truck clearly marking the area where people should take precautions, but also real people, dressed in uniforms, which I believed were some kind of city safety workers, or maybe even regular police. They were standing between the truck and the people passing by, with their arms open signaling which direction pedestrians had to proceed. Once again… “Whaat?”
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3- Japan’s Shinto religion was brand new to me, I later found out much more about it and discovered that its foundation beliefs and history are quite fascinating, especially because of its deep link with nature. I will be sharing a lot about my impressions and findings on Japan’s indigenous religion in later posts. Together with Buddhism, these are the two predominant religions in the country, and not mutually exclusive. Much more on this later.
For now, I will share a little bit about the iconic “Torii” 鳥居 (pronounced toree) as seen in the header photo of this post, and in the image below. These are the traditional Japanese gates, most commonly found at the entrance of a Shinto shrine, the place of worship of this religion. They symbolically mark the transition from the mundane to the sacred, and it is usually the way to identify Shinto shrines, or sacred nature spots, such as bodies of water, very old trees, waterfalls, etc. that are considered sacred. We will see and visit many of them during our virtual stay in Japan.
In the city of Tokyo there are many Shinto shrines. In the hundreds actually, if you count the grater Tokyo area. The one I visited near the Hotel, called Shiba Daijingū was founded in the year 1005, it has been restored since of course. The history in Japan is not only amazingly rich but it is indeed ancient. We will particularly see this fact in our visit to Nara, which was the capital of Japan one thousand years ago and for that a very special historical place.
What I found interesting at this shrine, was the behavior of people, young and old, walking by the shrine. For example, seeing office workers rushing to catch a bus most likely, slowing right down, stopping and bowing with their hands together in front of their chest and instantly continuing on with their mad rush to get to where they were going. No matter how in a hurry they appeared to be, or even if anyone was watching or not, they all took the time to show with their body language and actions, how important for them it was this transition between the mundane and the sacred.
Time to leave the city for now and start our adventure in the interior of Japan and Shinrin-yoku country. First stop, the forests of Kiso area and the Akasawa forest, the birth place of Forest bathing as an official wellbeing and stress reduction practice.
I got to the Tokyo train station, near Chiyoda, where the Imperial Palace is located. I started to get the hang of how to navigate the Japanese trains in a very short time, with a very special helper.
Travel TIP: The best aid I had to, not only know what trains to take and from where, but also to get the best connection times while on the go, was this must have Japan Official Travel App You get every useful detail of your route, with many options to chose from. The invaluable info included which platform to take the train from, which allowed to transfer from one train to the next very quickly and hence making some tight connections. All this was presented on the app extremely fast and accurately, updated almost instantly. Very impressive and really all you need to help you move around in Japan by public transit. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to get a SIM card with unlimited data during your stay.
I allowed extra time to make it to where I was taking the Shinkansen (Bullet train) from. Using this app, I managed to arrive at my departing platform very early. I had reserved a seat on my train, which thanks to the prepaid JR Pass, was included at no extra cost. You can reserve seats at the window where you show your Japan Rail Pass to get into the station, or online ahead of time. The efficiency I saw in the train system so far was outstanding, no wonder millions of people are moved around this city every single day without many issues.
You may have a sense of me and my observation skills by now, I had time this morning (or was it afternoon?) to watch and spot a few remarkably interesting things while waiting for my train.
These key behaviors I observed, which it appears that most all Japanese travelers seem to follow and do naturally, result in the benefit of everybody. I point this out, because in many places I’ve visited or lived in South and North America and Europe, and you ofcourse know this too, there is always the “smart” ones that skip lines, cut other people off, stand right in front of the bus/train doors as people are trying to get off, and always put themselves first. In Japan, it is very apparent the respect of people for everybody else and they know that following the well-designed rules only helps everybody in the end, not just a few.
This “outrageous” behavior (in the best sense of the word, as in being positively shocked) was something I got use used to right away, and it only makes sense that you follow suit. You see so much awareness, care, and respect from others that you jump on board right away. I sincerely loved it. It makes coexistence with millions of other folks going about their lives so much easier and less stressful.
Ok, enough blabbing, these are the most noticeable points:
1- Preparation for boarding: You see a few markings on the platform floor. The most obvious are the car numbers which are located exactly where the car’s boarding door they indicate will stop when your train arrives. Then, you see these lines of different colors, just a couple of feet away from where the door will end up when the train arrives. This is how it works. There is a line for first departure and one for second departure, meaning that for the next train scheduled to stop at this platform, people line up where it says “First Departure”, for the following train, you can start lining up ahead of time using the “Second Departure” marking on the floor. Since I was so early, I was first in line for the second departure.
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2- Offloading, cleaning & boarding: Just before the train arrives, you see people lining up behind the “First departure” sign, then at least two cleaning staff members for each car waiting just in front of the first passenger in line. When the train arrives, passengers can get off the train quickly, without being blocked by passengers trying to get on because these are orderly lined up and waiting away from the door. Once the last passenger gets off and walks away from the door, the cleaning staff get on to do their work, while passengers still wait patiently in line on the platform. The cleaning was for long distance trains at the end of their line ofcourse. When the cleaning staff gets off the train, then and only then, passengers can start boarding the train. No physical barriers, gates or staff directing the pedestrian traffic, just painted lines on the floor! Blown away by how everyone complies with these rules, it’s just part of their routine and obviously they would never understand how or why we do what we do in many cities in the west!!!
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I am now ready to go, my Shinkansen train has arrived, and knowing what to do I follow the rules, low stress and efficiency.
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Next, we stay in a wood cabin campground in the beautiful forests of Kiso area in Nagano, and the first Shirin yoku session in Akasawa forest, where it all started…
Don’t touch the robots!
I stayed in Tokyo for a night before continuing on to Nagano Prefecture. I don’t think I was prepared for the kind of reception I got at the hotel.
Play the video below to see and hear for yourself…
The “Don’t touch the robots” phrase, as it turned out, came up a few times while in Japan, especially in Tokyo. Most robots I saw during the rest of the trip were kind of “cute”, but these two, I thought, were borderline creepy.
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So, it worked like this, you selected your language on the large touch screen, then scanned your passport. The machine next to each robot would issue your key card and was also setup to receive payments by cash or card upon check out. Very efficient, and the robots added a “human touch” if you will, nicer than just having the two machines that looked like ATMs, I guess. What do you think?
The Room – Full of surprises
This Hotel, I figured, was designed to host office workers mostly, that don’t make it home due to a very late workday. As you may know, the Japanese is a workaholic culture, especially noticeable in Tokyo. It seems to happen very often that workers stay at the office so late that depending on how far they live, they are better off staying at a nearby hotel than heading home and having to commute back to work just a few hours later. All workers stay at work as long as their boss is there. I was told that no one leaves the office before their boss, so if you’re “lucky” to have an extra workaholic boss, you’re in for very late nights.
The room was pretty small, in comparison to our western standards, but I was expecting this. Some aspects were quite unexpected, though. I love learning new ways of doing things, especially in this such unique and far away culture, I was in for a treat. These are the top three!
Heated toilet seat: Toilets are in fact state of the art machines in Japan. They even have a control panel with button to activate and manage all its functions! The most prominent one is that seats are padded and heated. It was the first time I ever experienced this feature, but it turned out to be an extremely popular thing all over Japan. Every toilet I encountered, yes, even public toilets, or in the middle of nowhere, in a campground, as I found out later in my travels. I got so used to it that after two weeks of enjoying this very comfortable feature, it was a shocking experience the first time I used a regular toilet back home.
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Suit Fridge: What? I know it sounds weird, but I could not find any other way to call this device. At first glance, it looked like a full-size fridge, which was odd to see in such small room. When inspected more closely, I figured out what it was. Going back to office workers staying here, and the fact that they would be forced to wear the same clothes the next day, this device refreshes and steams their suit and shirt, (everybody wears a suit to the office). It even creases your suit pants. I HAD to try it of course… I did a shirt, jeans and even the socks came out fresh!
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Free Smartphone Service: I scanned around the room for another toy or novelty, besides the huge LED TV that was almost as big as the side wall, I spotted a phone in a cradle charging. I’ve been out of the corporate world since I came to Germany 3 years ago (which my body and mental health thank very much), so this was the first time I saw this service. I found it extremely cool. Basically, while you stay in this hotel you have a free smartphone that you can carry with you and enjoy free internet access and local and international calls. Dang!
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Out for dinner – A whole new world to explore
As I said earlier, I had no idea what meal I was having next, it looked like dinner, but it was the middle of the night back in Munich. I just went out to explore the neighborhood and check out the restaurant scene in that part of Tokyo. The streets look like narrow alleyways, and the restaurants were tiny hole in the wall kind of setup. Many had tables outside for that matter. Everything looked very clean and the roads had huge bright signs almost freshly painted. I noticed a few of those office workers in their suits even though it was 7:30 pm local time. I guessed they were looking for a place to have dinner, (or lunch?) I got pretty excited because the best way to learn about a culture is through food and I was in the best spot, where locals go, no touristy places around. Then it happened, I spotted a Japanese beef place. Tiny like the others, with a lot of weird equipment hanging from the ceiling. I figured it out when I saw these tiny gas grills on each table, self-grilled Japanese beef, count me in!!!
The moment I stepped in, I felt like a very important person, all the staff started screaming, repeatedly “Konnichiwa” and “Yokoso” (Hello and welcome) while doing that quick and snappy head bow. I could only hear “..chiwa” and osooo” but later I realized what they were saying. Really cool.
Very thankful that the menus had large pictures of every dish, this was a local joint, so nothing was translated to English. After a lot of pointing and a lot of emphatic “Hi” which means yes, I got my order. Man, I could not care less about the jetlag anymore, or what time it was.
When the amazing looking raw beef mini steaks and fresh veggies arrived, they turned on the gas grill and pull down one of those pipes hanging from the ceiling. Individual chimneys with an extractor fan inside. I also ordered Sake, of course. This was the beginning of my two week Sake tasting tour.
Enjoy the pictures and try not to drool too much.
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Besides the chopsticks, I had a mini pair of BBQ tongs and scissors to cut the meat with. Never ate grilled meat before with either of those utensils, chopsticks & scissors. It was delicious, and I had seconds, I tried two other types of Japanese beef. They catalog their beef as fancy wine in other countries. Each with their ”Terroir” and type of grass or grain they’re fed with. Very impressive, and very satisfied, I was absolutely ready to call it a night…
Travel TIP: When you are planning your trip next year, allow for at least one extra evening in Tokyo on arrival day. This extra day in advance of the rest of your plans will be extremely helpful to process the jetlag and to get your body used to the new time zone. The first few hours are very confusing, you just traveled your whole night (12 hr flight from Munich) and by the time you get to the hotel after you arrive, it is basically night again, so you don’t really know what meal to have next, let alone what day it is.
Next, we will learn about the famous Japanese Rail system, and more shocking behaviour (in the best possible sense)
Who’s flying to Japan?!
The flight was very pleasant. Service was superb and thank the caring and quiet ways of the crew I slept most of it until the gradually increasing cabin lights simulating sunrise came on (another amazing feature of the Boeing 787)
Because of this, not many pictures were taken during the flight 😉
Ok, this is how I will be guiding our virtual trip through Japan.
Every two or three days I will be adding a new post titled “Day x – Part x” and a brief description of what we’ll be seeing that day. These posts will have a lot of highly detailed information on every part of the trip, just as if you were there with me.
I will be providing travel tips by adding “Travel TIP” alerts, easily found throughout the content of each post.
I will be pointing out unique and, especially important, Japanese cultural customs to keep in mind for when you come. These will be marked as “Cultural TIP“.
Arrival at Haneda Airport
The arrival at Haneda was not hugely different from many other arrivals I have experienced at other airports around the world. I am normally very observant and a very curious person, but this time, I had fine-tuned my antennae even more to gather as much useful information as possible. The idea was to capture as much details as possible to be conveyed to our prospective clients coming to our retreat.
It all went very smoothly. The main advantage here was that the line for foreign nationals was very short compared to the Japanese nationals. After getting my passport stamped, I proceeded to pick up my luggage, all very well signed and easy to follow. When I got the luggage pickup place, I just waited near the shoot where the luggage comes onto the main conveyor belt, I was not really in a hurry but this is in my business traveler “genes” 🙂
Now, I was very lucky I did because this is where I spotted the first big (huge) difference with any other airports in the world that I visited. An airport attendant came to the luggage carousel to actually “operate” it. She had a panel with buttons, where she started the carousel and then proceeded to catch each piece of luggage with her hands as they slid down from the feeding belt. She would make sure that the luggage would not pile on by placing each piece evenly distributed along the edge of the belt. She would also turn them around, so the handle faced outwards for people to get them off the belt with ease.
What?! you say? so did I. Ok, I was impressed.
After a few pieces of luggage came out, I also noticed that she had a list in her hand, and sporadically would pull out pieces of luggage when she found a match. It turned out that she was unloading the flight crew’s luggage which was eventually collected by flight attendants and pilots from by her side.
I also noticed that smaller bags, or more vulnerable ones made of soft materials, had been placed in hard-plastic containers to protect them as they were transported through the airport luggage system from below.
What?! Ok, I’m starting to get blown away after only a few minutes after I arrived. I then realized that I had arrived at a country where respect for others and their belongings was at the top of the list. Big smile.
Once I got my bags, I proceeded to the main terminal area to pick up the JR Rail Pass and the sim card I had purchased ahead of time.
Travel TIP: A few weeks before you travel, I highly recommend you get a Japan Rail Pass and also renting a sim card for your phone. You will have unlimited train travel and mobile internet access at very reasonable rates.
The JR Pass is valid for 7, 14 or 21 days, and can be activated for the part of the trip you are planning to use it the most. For example, during our retreat you will not be travelling by train at all. Transportation during our outings is included as part of our retreat fee. You would then activate it the day after our retreat ends and you do travel on your own to the different spots in Japan you would like to visit afterward. Please let me know if you have any questions. Visit https://www.jrailpass.com/ for more info.
I am all set now, JR Pass and SIM card in hand. I activated my Rail Pass starting the next morning because its validity is measured in full days not in number of trips, and it was already late in the afternoon. For this reason I paid for the monorail to downtown Tokyo separately, which in fact was quite cheap, regardless of the many zeros you see in the displayed prices in Yens (¥ or 円 as seen written in Japan).
Travel TIP: I had gotten some Japanese Yen cash at the Munich airport before I departed, but you can safely and cheaply exchange cash from machines. There are millions of vending machines in Japan, for pretty much anything, including money exchange. I looked for a bank or a reputable exchange place in the city, but the only way I found to do this away from the airport, was using these specifically designed paper currency exchange machines, which are mostly located inside banks. The rates are very reasonable and nowhere near outrageous as we are used to seeing in ATMs at airports in the west. If you did not exchange cash before you left, you will find this services at the airport in Haneda.
To understand the train ticket machines you definitely need help, especially when you have just arrived. They have attendants standing by that would gladly help you buy your tickets.
Another (Huge) advantage of having a JR Pass. You don’t have to worry about buying train tickets every time you travel, and you will be able to make tighter connections when you change between lines or different types of train services. More tips about train travel will come later.
On the way to downtown Tokyo on the Monorail from Haneda:
This is when another memorable event took place. I was traveling light because I was going to be on the move most of the time. I had just a carryon and a backpack. When you board the monorail, you see an area designed specifically for luggage. It is enclosed with a short railing around it so luggage won’t fall, and it remains secure and out of the way from people getting on and off the train.
When I got on, I saw that the luggage place was full, I just proceeded to lean against one of the poles so I could support myself, keeping my backpack on and placing the carryon between my feet. I then noticed this guy in a suit and tie who got up, picked up some shopping bags from the luggage area, and nodded at me pointing to the space he had just freed for me to put my carryon into. He then sat back down and put his shopping bags on his lap. I placed my carryon in the secure area. Now I could sit down because I only had my backpack which I could put on my lap. I smiled and nodded back at him.
I was amazed, and this was the first of many times that showed me how aware of others Japanese people are, I hadn’t even noticed him sitting there, yet he saw that he could help me, a complete stranger, by freeing a small space in the luggage carrier. Mind blown, yet again. I had only been in this amazing country for less than two hours.
A short train ride and a transfer to another line and I had arrived at the station near my hotel, jetlagged and all I kept “recording” in my brain all the sights and sounds.
Next installment, we will arrive and check in at this very unique Hotel, and will meet some very unexpected staff at the reception desk.
Only in Japan…
As many of you may know, we and a group of 10 lucky people would be in Japan right now, enjoying our scheduled “Mindfulness in Nature & Forest Therapy Retreat” in Nagano, Japan. The birthplace of Shinrin-yoku.
Obviously, due to the current situation we were forced to reschedule our retreat for next year (more info here)
We thought that it would be fun to invite you all to travel to Japan anyway, virtually of course.
I will take you to all the places I visited exactly two years ago, when I travelled to Japan to plan out our retreat.
I will give you my first-time visitor prospective, very useful tips I learned along the way, and to top it all up, the amazing things I learned about this beautiful place, its amazing culture and extremely helpful and empathic people.
Let’s get going!
So, we are at the airport, waiting by the gate. So much excitement has accumulated that we are very ready to endure the 12-hour, overnight flight we’re about to embark on. The experience will start early as we are flying with a Japanese airline. It will be a great opportunity to get a taste of the Japanese hospitality before arriving in Tokyo.
First thing I notice is that we’re flying in a B787 Dreamliner, which I personally consider as my favorite plane for long distance flights, as it is full of comfort and very modern features, like the “shadeless” windows, as they just gradually darken by the touch of a button. Secondly, I realized that I picked a great seat, lots of legroom and so close to the washroom.
Ok… Japan, here we come!!!
We continue offering Free Nature Meditation Sessions online, and we’re very happy to see and hear great feedback from our community of friends and clients around the world.
We are half-way through with our first weekly series based on the 4 elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire, and an extra one, “Space” as it is considered a 5th element in Tibetan Buddhist traditions.
Following the completion of this series, we are preparing a second set based on our senses, as they are the foundation of Forest Therapy and Shinrin-yoku, which rely on the deep connection to nature through them.
Come join us for Free, Tuesdays or Sundays.
For more information and to pick a date/time: Register Here