We see this self-imposed affliction in our participants more and more often. It seems to be happening much earlier in life, even in their 20’s. Most people that come to us are in search of a dramatic change in their lives because of the symptoms are becoming almost unbearable. They see no lasting satisfaction in anything they do “for fun” anymore. The common escape from working more than 50% of the 168 hours available in a week normally include…
- buying expensive stuff (Substantiating their financial success)
- partying hard (“We work hard, and we party hard”… sound familiar?)
- seeking adrenaline inducing activities
- and the list goes on…
Yet, the satisfaction rendered is as short-lived as the activity itself, and many times with undesirable consequences. The mildest being a killer hangover and not even remembering how much “fun” was had. Looking for answers in all the wrong places seems to be an all too common vicious circle.
“Going back to basics” sounds like an overused phrase, yet it has an important clue hidden in plain sight. If by “basics” we mean spending time in nature, in the forest, in the mountains, by the ocean on a deserted beach, then we’re really onto something.
It sounds so simplistic an answer, unsophisticated and cheap, that most people pass it by. They rather keep searching for what the competing, energy drinker, crowd says it’s worth doing.
Spending mindful time in nature is in fact in our DNA, it is the natural way our predecessors, not only rested, but also restored the balance in their bodies and minds.
It is THAT simple!
The main problem is that most people have forgotten how to do this. How to be in nature as the part of it that we are(were). Jogging through a park, with your earbuds on doesn’t quite cut it. The true connection with nature, requires all your senses focused on it, mindfully engaged with it, fully receiving all it has to give.
The proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” is that many of those borderline burnout victims are starting to see the path back to our true selves and our true home. They again seek reconnecting with nature in a profound, mindful and healing manner. The young folks that come to us are in search of the connection they had with nature when they were kids, they remember how valuable it was to them before the definition of “valuable” was changed by the competitive, cut throat professional life the embarked on.
This movement is not a revolution, it’s just common sense. And it is backed by decades of science with measurable results as proof of the physiological benefits of mindfully immersing oneself in a forest. It’s also about time.
What an amazing September!
Our Mindfulness in Nature and Forest Therapy retreat in Scotland was full of magic. Strangers who became family in just a few days. We all became so enriched by nature, mindfulness and the deep connection that we all have to this one place. A place filled with tolerance, compassion and the common ground that unites us, that makes us all one.
Our true nature is lured out of us by the invisible thread that connects us all, all we need is to jump out of the hamster wheel for a while, pause, look around with the eyes of the soul and be open to seeing past the masks and self-imposed facades. A deep re-connection with nature facilitates this change back to our true selves because it’s our home, and there is no need to pretend when we are home.
We plan our retreats with a lot of heart vision, yet we continue to be surprised by the magical connections among our participants and the instant miraculous dynamics spontaneously created within minutes. We bring people from different parts of the world together, and by the time we are done, just a few days, lifelong friendships flourish. This is our most desired wish in doing what we do. It warms my heart to see these mysterious works and makes me proud and so very grateful for being a small part in them.
Good food for the body and the soul. Lots of fun in our excursions and also moments of reflection and solitude.
Looking forward to our next one. We hope you can join us!
We had such an amazing time at our 7 day retreat in Italy. The venue and surrounding area were indeed spectacular, the hosting family are such heartwarming people, Italian hospitality to the core. We all felt part of a great big family.
We humbly feel that our Mindfulness in Nature program was indeed a success. We are very proud of what Emma and I have put together. Each day had a theme. We did our Shinrin-yoku sessions in different forested areas around the area. Twice right next to the farm, one in a national park a short drive away and the last one at a very special and inspiring valley just a few minutes away. Nature and Mindfulness was indeed all around us.
Some photos and feedback from this amazing week:
“A week’s retreat Forest Bathing with Carlos and Emma in Italy was a unique, enjoyable and memorable experience, one not to be missed”
“I was travelling alone, however I never felt alone as Carlos gave me step by step instructions and from the moment I enquired about the trip I felt connected, cared for and supported all the way through to arriving in the country, Carlos proved to be a very reliable and trustworthy person”
“It is evident that Carlos and Emma share their passion for forest bathing and have knowledge of the benefits and research. The simple sensory practices bring new awareness and insights to an experience in the forest and can be quite profound, I look forward to repeating these when I’m back home and enjoying a more sensory and connected relationship with nature”
“The programme was very well thought out with a variety of forests bathing trips to different forests, visits to local places of interest and mindfulness meditation”
“I feel refreshed, renewed, relaxed and empowered to return to life after only one week away! I wish you all the best for the future and hope this one gave you a good start in many more successful retreats”
“Carlos shared his interest of dream yoga, which I found inspiring and couldn’t wait to go to sleep to see what happens! Emma shared her passion for creative writing which was infectious and fun, her calm and gentle presence comes across at all times, particularly through her guided meditations”
“I found Carlos and Emma to be the warm, kind, caring and interesting to talk to. I feel forever grateful for their knowledge and well put together programme that gave me a memorable experience always to be remembered”
I’m interested for next year! CLICK HERE
Some more memorable times and places:
Here we are, at Gli Orti di Bertin, near Campo Ligure, Italy. This is the venue for our next Shinrin-yoku retreat the last week of May. We came to finalize the last few details and mark the trails we’ll be using during our 7 days in this beautiful land.
Today we walked along the river Gorzente which will be one of our trails in May. This conservation area is located at about 20 minutes from here, crossing to the province of Alessandria in Piemonte. Everything was just bursting with that new “baby” green and multicolour flowers were making themselves shown… This park is called Parco di Capanne di Marcarolo in the extensive protected area of the Piedmont Apennines.
At this time of the year, the river swells due to melting snow and the rain that has been falling the last few days. Most of the path that we walked was in fact flooded by the small natural springs coming down with much more water than usual. It’s all part of the annual cycle, increased water supply to the increased demand as everything is blooming and bursting with life.
After my last Shinrin-yoku private session which took place at Okutama Town near Tokyo, I traveled to a hotel near my next destination, which in fact turned out to be the highlight of my entire trip. I stayed overnight very near the Chiba University campus where Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki works has a professor and leads the Nature Therapy Laboratory at the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences.
A dream come true! Meeting the world-renowned and pioneer on Shinrin Yoku research. He started his Shinrin-yoku research as far back as 1990, focused on the physiological benefits of forest bathing. In 2003 after finding so much evidence of these benefits, backed by his research, Dr. Miyazaki coined himself the term “Forest Therapy”, now so well-known and used around the world.
Dr. Miyazaki agreed to receive me in his office at 11:00 am. I had breakfast very early after almost not able to sleep much in anticipation. I checked out of the hotel and took a taxi to the same train station where I arrived the evening before. It was still very early so I had the chance to find a locker for my luggage and walk around the area for a bit.
I was to meet with Dr. Miyasaki’s secretary at the train station’s lobby. The time finally came, it was quite easy to find me as I was probably the only westerner (again) at the station at that time.
A few minutes walk, we entered the Chiba University campus which has plenty of agriculturally workable land and open space, and you can see several fruit tree plantations around the just few buildings. I thought it was a sensible green space/concrete ratio for a campus hosting Dr. Miyazaki’s work.
I was led to a meeting room where Dr. Miyazaki and two of his staff members received me. Wow, what a moment. I wanted to pinch myself. We met for a whole hour, professor Miyazaki was very interested in our Forest Therapy center in Bavaria and I felt really proud answering all his questions. He had also prepared a binder with his published papers from the last decade to date. So very generous him.
At the end of the meeting I asked if I could take a picture, he graciously agreed and we went outside with his team, by a persimmon tree near the building where he works. Could not have been more appropriate to have a green background for our pictures.
I placed a framed photo in our office, with his business card which is made of a very thin slice of Hinoki cypress wood.
We highly recommend reading his book released in 2018:
“Shinrin-yoku: The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health and Relaxation”
It is a great introduction to the world of Forest Bathing and Forest Therapy, with much information on his research and the revealing findings regarding physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku and nature therapy.
We just held our first weekend long Forest Therapy retreat in Bavaria, Germany.
The weather was absolutely amazing, sunny and relatively warm for this time of the year. Still lots of snow so we did the entire trail on snow shoes. This added a certain adventure component to it all. It was loads of fun and everyone had a great time.
Some participants selected our early arrival option, which meant coming in on Friday night, spending the extra time with us in the country and enjoying additional mindfulness meditation guided sessions in our seminar room.
On Saturday, after breakfast we welcomed the rest of the participants, 6 in total, and after lunch we headed out to the forest for 3 hours. It was a heartwarming and healing session, and we could tell how profound of an experience it was for the entire group.
In the evening, jacuzzi under the stars and a bright moon, and sauna in the forest. It was a challenge to get our guests to leave that setting and come in for dinner….
Next morning, another 2 hour session in the forest including a picnic lunch in nature.
Our farewell out of the forest in pairs celebrating new friendships and a very meaningful time together…
A great experience for everyone and a deep sense of fulfilment for us after another successful retreat. We are very honoured and humbled to inspire this magic on people.
My next stop was the Okutama Forest Therapy base near Tokyo. At about one and a half hours by car from downtown Tokyo, we find this picturesque town by the Tama river. Thick forests on both sides of this river valley as far as the eye can see. I later learned that this area has 97% of its area covered by forests. Being closer to the ocean, you can tell that the autumn colours are far from starting to show themselves yet.
I slept in a local pension type of residence just minutes to the Oku-Tama train station, the meeting place with my guide Kenichi, and Forest Therapy Base administrator Keiko. I waited for them while having a can of cold coffee off a vending machine as I have been doing for the last few days. It is hard to find a place that sells hot coffee in the morning …
After we met, they drove me to the Forest Therapy Base about 20 minutes outside of town. The Okutama Forest Therapy base has invested almost 2 million dollars in Infrastructure and it is very apparent throughout the tour. When we arrived, we entered a single story modern building with a spacious meeting area, a modest kitchen and public bathrooms. I had the usual tests done there, blood pressure and saliva test. This being my third Shinrin Yoku walk within a week, they were quite impressed with my low initial numbers. I told them I’d had quite a large dose of Forest Therapy in the past 5 days so they were quite happy for me and for having yet more proof that Shinrin Yoku works so well.
As soon as we started the walk, you can see right away where they invested their money, lots of infrastructure along the way, not just a nicely equipped main base building. The trails are carved out of the side of the hill with smooth even paths made of natural materials, and a short wall on the mountain side which allows you to smell, touch and inspect closely all the ground cover plants and low bushes without having to bend down. A sturdy protective fence on the down side of the hill protects walkers from getting off the trails. A most impressive wheelchair lift from the main building to station 2 makes it easy for handicapped attendees to reach the heart of the forest path half way up the mountain side.
The wildlife is quite alive and well around here. Bears and wild boars are the main residents sharing their habitat with the impetuous humans. The guide was packing a canister of bear spray, so all was well.
There are buildings along the path that they called stations, concrete structures with lots of large glass windows and very comfortable inside. We stopped at one of them to have lunch. The guide kept discretely updating the base station with his radio on our progress. This way the organizer would meet us at Station 2 with lunch served. Very impressive.
Forest viewing room
After lunch, the guide showed me a special area in this building with a theater sitting style stepped benches facing a very large window. This is the forest viewing room, instead of a large screen you see the forest through a gigantic window while listening to the sound of water trickling coming from an opening in the wall. The sound is channeled through a duct system coming from a natural spring underneath the building.
Like every Forest Therapy walk I did in Japan, I could not stop looking around for unknown to me plant species and insects. I had plenty of amazing surprises.
Okutama Town Forest Therapy base is the closest to Tokyo. It offers a great opportunity for people in the city and surrounding areas to reach this base by public transit in a relatively short time, hence allowing a full forest bathing experience as a day trip from home. It also offers night sessions of star-gazing in the middle of the forest.
meeting someone who is basically one of the main figures in Shinrin Yoku research, the person that proposed to the world the use of the “Forest Therapy” name, and my mentor, Dr. Yoshifumi Miyazaki of Chiba University.
The pilgrimage route through the Togakushi shrines is located in the forested mountains northwest of Nagano. Togakushi is considered to be a spiritual mountain with five shrines along the trail, each representing a different God character from the mythological story of Japan’s creation.
The 3 main shrines in Togakushi, a lower, a middle and upper one, are connected by a few kilometers of forested trail and steep stone stairways lined with giant Japanese cedars.
Considered to be a “power place” this area has a series of marked sacred places. These markers are called shimenawa made of a rice straw or hemp rope called nawa, and shide or gohei, origami type of figures made with white paper that are cut into strips and hung from these ropes. You find these at the entrances of holy places, they are also placed around trees to indicate the presence of kami (Shintō deity). By the way, look at the size of the Japanese Cedar in the photo below, sacred history in itself…
Traditional prayer routine
When you approach a Shinto shrine, there are no fancy decorations of gold or statues to venerate, normally you see an enclosure in the far back with closed doors. Shrines rather specialize in spirits, sacred incantations, and talismans. So, to pray to the spirits or Kami in that particular shrine, walk right up to the barrier in front of the main hall, there is normally a large wooden box with wooden slots where you can make an offering (100 yen is the typical amount offered). Then the protocol is, bow twice, clap your hands twice, now this is the time to pause and pray with your hands together, when done, bow once more.
I spent most of my time hugging these magnificent giant cedars, even though I did the water purification and prayer in each shrine too.
One of the things we do during our Forest Bathing session in Germany is to place a stone at the base of a tree as a form of an offering. I was very pleased to see that our “own” idea has been practiced in Japan for decades. Maybe the meaning is slightly different but in essence it is an offering to the tree.
Along the way to the last or upper Shrine, Okusha, the path is lined by ancient cedar trees that radiate such a spiritual feeling from such majestic nature. You walk along in fascination and awe. This is a very healing feeling in Shinrin Yoku terms.
And finally, the last Shrine, a very beautiful place high up at the base of the sacred mountain.
The wooden tablet above, is called “ema”, the tradition is that you write down a wish and place it in a box in the Shrine to be later presented to the Shintō deity of that Shrine.
(Thank you Naoko for the pictures you took of me)
For the day after the Otari Shinrin Yoku session, I arranged a tour in Nagano Town of a famous Buddhist temple, the Zenkoji temple and a Shinto pilgrimage route with several shrines along the way, the Togakushi shrines. Fortunately I had the same guide as the day before, Naoko, she was amazing. I learned a lot from her about the two main religions in Japan, a bit of their history and also many traditions and customs.
Let’s start with the food:
Soba noodles (buckwheat) is a big staple food of the area, I was to try one of the most odd and delicious ways to eat noodles that day…
The way of hand making the soba noodles is an art in itself. The master noodle makers love to show off their skills passed down from generation to generation. The meal we had for lunch had two major delicious surprises, soba tea which I had never heard of before (now my most favourite tea ever) and cold noodles that you dip in cold broth, yes COLD!
Interesting enough, once you pass the initial odd impression of eating cold noodles, you understand why. The flavours come through much stronger, and not worrying about burning your lips, you can slurp to your heart’s content (something you’re sort of expected to do when eating these noodles) Though against my nature and the engraved etiquette training from my childhood by my mother, I did slurp. It actually added another layer of the flavours of this dish, by somehow “inhaling” its aroma, it enhanced the taste. Memorable culinary experience!
Back to the culture…
First the Zenkoji temple, right in the town of Nagano. The current structure was built in1,707, but its history goes back thousands of years. If you would like to know more Read this article. Before entering the temple, there is a purification ritual performed with incense. You light up a new stick or bunch, throw it into the giant cauldron, then with your hands “bathe” your head, torso and legs with the smoke that you pull with your hand from the opening on the side..
Buddhist temples are normally very ornate inside, lots of gold decorations and statues of the bodhisattvas.
Shinto is much more subdued, no statues or figurines to venerate, no gold or shiny decorations other than a specific origami like white paper hanging banners from a rice straw rope called Shimenawa which marks a sacred place or thing, like an ancient tree or waterfall.
Next, the Togakushi shrines. This pilgrimage route was absolutely breathtaking, the history, the giant trees and the interesting “marriage” between the Shinto religion and Nature itself.
We took a bus into the mountains, around 20 km NW of Nagano Station to the beginning of the trail, the first Shrine of the four we visited. My first lesson on Shinto is the Torii, the traditional Japanese gates that I’ve seen all my life in movies or any travel ad on Japan, are actually marking the entrance to a Shinto shrine. Opposite to the Buddhist temples which normally have a giant, elaborate gates that almost look like the temples themselves, the Torii gates are very simple but with very unique and iconic design.
Next lesson… Purification ritual with spring water. Just outside each shrine, small or large, there is always a purification station. Some more elaborate than others, and some with a certain theme related to the God that this particular shrine “hosts”. The ritual is as follows:
First pick one of the long handle cups you find resting on the water basin, normally a large sink like basin made of granite, then fill it up under the running water-spout. You only use one cup full for the entire ritual.
First you pour a little water on your left hand and lightly rinse your fingers, then switch hands and do the same with your right hand. Now, cup your left hand and pour a bit of water in it, and rinse your lips with that water. Then, rinse your left hand once more, and finally pour the rest of the water in a such way so it runs down the length of the handle, hence rinsing it for the next person.
Part 2, coming in a couple of days
Continuing with our adventure in Japan, my next destination was Minami-Otari, where I had booked a full day Shinrin Yoku, private tour with a guide from the Otari Forest Therapy base. I left the Akasawa forest area, the very historical Kiso area, heading north, up a beautiful valley with forested mountains on either side. I had the whole day before I had to check in at a Hotel in Hakuba, my destination for the night. I could stop as many times as I wanted along tha way, thanks to the JR (Japan Rail) Pass. I was told that the Matsumoto Castle was worth seeing and it was definitely great intel.
It was a stunning piece of history and a national tressure for Japan and the world.
I jumped on another train to continue on to Hakuba, a world-renowned ski area at a much higher elevation on the Japanese Alps.
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. That night, once again something amazing happened, during dinner, a buffet style setup in a seemingly very large restaurant for being at a hotel. I was struggling to get the attention of a waiter to order a drink. 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.
Early morning the next day, I had to get to the train station by 7:45 the only morning train 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 an amazing great surprise because I was about to meet someone so beautifully in tune with me and 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. On top of everything, with such beautiful backdrop, you just didnt’ know which way to look, as there was one spectacular view next to another.
Enjoy the photos. (Click on them to enlarge)
Where it all started….
This is the birth place of the practice of Shinrin Yoku, and that’s why it was number one on my list. I contacted the Agematsu Town Tourism Association and Kazue Matsubara arranged everything for me. She was also the interpreter during the private Shinrin Yoku session, because the Forest Therapist did not speak English. I received the royal treatment.
They picked me up at the train station and drove me to the forest which is about a 20-minute drive.
As we went higher and higher in elevation, we started to notice a more and more colorful panorama on the surrounding forest.
The main base has a building where the clinic operates, a souvenir shop and seminar room building and another with a restaurant. They have a full-time doctor on site who performs a check-up before and after the walks. This recreational forest has 8 different courses, one more beautiful than the next. They all have different effort levels, one is fully paved or wood-boarded so it can be done on a wheelchair.
My first close contact with a Hinoki Cypress. This area called Kiso is famous for the Hinoki tree which is highly regarded as one of the most important trees of Japan.
The “big five” tree species of Kiso: Hinoki, Sawara, Nezuko, Asunaro and Koyamaki.
A beautiful day, I wanted to do more trails on my own after the “VIP Shinrin Yoku session” but the weather turned, and the day was cut short. Next time!
When I got to the hotel, near the Hamamatsuchō Monorail Terminal, I got my first big surprise, the Reception desk staff were fully functional, life-size ROBOTS!!
In any rate, once I scanned my Passport, this machine, next to the robot, delivered the card that was my room key, got a couple of instructions from the “guy” on the left and away I went to my room. Pretty smooth and very impressive.
The room was “Tokyo size” where the TV screen is relatively speaking disproportionally large. One thing I was really impressed, which lasted for the rest of the trip, was the hi-tech toilets the Japanese have. Not only warmed seats, but an electronic panel to “drive” the thing and all its functions.
I went out for dinner to a nearby, typical tiny restaurant, with great service and even better food. Of course, I had to try the famous Japanese beef, I found me this little place where they have a gas BBQ for each table, they bring you the beef in 5 mm thick slices and you cook it yourself. Superb! With some Sake of course. That was my welcome to Japan….
Next.. The Shinrin Yoku adventures begin!