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!
The monorail service from Haneda Airport to central Tokyo is as efficient as the JR Rail system and all other forms of public transportation in Japan. Very inexpensive too, about US $ 2.50 from Haneda to downtown Tokyo. Not even an hour since I arrived, and something marvelous happened, which showed me again how considerate and aware of their surroundings people in Japan are, even here in Tokyo, the most populous city in the planet.
I got on the train and saw there was a specific place for passengers to place suitcases, this was a square platform at floor level in the center of the car with some kind of protecting railing to avoid the luggage to roll around. There are seats all around it and some standing room. When I got on, I saw that the nearest luggage place was already full, I had a carry-on and a backpack. I started looking around to see where would be the best spot for me to stand, hold on to a handrail at the same time trying to keep my luggage with me and out of the way. Not even a millisecond into this thought, I saw this man get up from his seat, pick his bag from the luggage holding area and sat down again, placing his bag on his lap. He nodded and signaled with his eyes that he made room for me. I then placed my larger bag in the vacant spot and now was able to sit down with just my backpack on my lap. I nodded a thank you back to him and he acknowledged with a smile. I just sat there in awe of what I just witnessed. Here’s the most dense city in the planet with 6,000 people per square kilometer (compared to New York city at less than 2000 / sq km) where an average local citizen, minding his own business was not at all in a bubble or isolated from his surroundings, willing to promptly volunteer helping a fellow human out of the kindness of his heart. Once again, impressed!!
I was even more pumped about the next two weeks in this amazing country.
When we arrived to Haneda airport, all went very smoothly. I was scanning for anything new as I was entering a new world to me. Getting off the plane happened as it always does, going through the Passport control area, was the same as other countries. The 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 found my luggage pickup place, I just waited near the shoot where the luggage comes onto the conveyor belt, I was not in a hurry but it’s in my genes 🙂
Now, lucky I did because this is where I spotted the first big (huge) difference with any other airports in the world that I visited. A female airport agent came to the luggage carousel to actually man it. She had a panel with buttons. where she started the carousel and then proceeded to receive each piece of luggage with her hands as they slid down the belt, she would make sure that the luggage would not pile on, so she would place them evenly on the edge of the belt, at the same time that she would turn them around so the handle would face outwards to get them out of the belt with ease. What?! Ok, I was impressed.
After a few pieces of luggage came out, I also noticed that smaller bags, or more vulnerable ones made of soft materials, were placed in a hard plastic container to protect them as they were transported through the system from below.
What?! Ok, I’m more impressed.
I then realized that I had arrived at a country where respect for others and their belongings was at the top of the list. I smiled.
Now that we’re back, after editing and finishing the post production work on our media (500+ photos), we’ll be busy creating posts to share the Shinrin Yoku adventures, and the cultural tours we did in the beautiful land of Japan.
On October 17, 2018 I am embarking on a trip to Japan to explore and experience the places where Shinrin Yoku was born. The Forest Therapy Bases where two decades of research have taken place, providing such wealth of information on the many physiological benefits provided by this practice. The excitement is unmeasurable! And the huge bonus is that I will have the amazing opportunity to meet Professor Yoshifumi Miyazaki at the University of Chiba near Tokyo. He’s whom I consider my mentor so the fact that he agreed to receive me in his office at the University, is an immense honor. Stay tuned! Lots of picture and stories to come!