There’s no better cure for the stress of urban life than a simple walk in the woods. Just ask the Japanese
May the Forest Be with You: There’s no better cure for the stress of urban life than a simple walk in the woods. Just ask the Japanese
Because the volcanic archipelago that forms Japan is so mountainous, three-quarters of the land effectively is too steep to live on. The country’s current population of 127 million is squeezed into little more than 100,000 square kilometres of valleys and plains surrounded by challenging mountainsides and spectacular forests, limned by coastline. It is by necessity then that more than 94 per cent of its population lives in cities. It is crowded psychologically as well: there’s an expectation of strict conformity to accommodate such close living. Its deeply ingrained collective urbanism is demonstrable today in the patient acceptance of jammed subway cars (in a culture emphasizing privacy and boundary, people are literally packed in). Urban life anywhere is stressful. In Japan, it is intensely so.
The state religion, Shinto, seems to have evolved as a natural response to such intensity. Practised by roughly 80 per cent of the population, it offers a rather amorphous and informal experience for most adherents. The practice is largely concerned with attending lovely and peaceful shrines in natural settings and appealing to divine entities referred to as kami who live thereabouts. These kami are interesting: they are the sacred essence manifested in nature — they are in rocks, trees, plants and animals, and often in specific locales. Shinto teaches that nature is a blessing and that among the deep valleys, ocean cliffs and mountain peaks, anyone can commune with the divine — and that getting out into nature is good for you. It is so fundamental, it is part of the secular dogma as well: the government’s forestry agency has established more than 1,000 “recreation forests” within national woodlands across Japan to provide access to all.
From this value system in this population pressure cooker has emerged a most remarkable tradition, a therapy for physical, mental and emotional well-being, introduced by the government in 1982, called shinrin-yoku. Often referred to as “forest bathing” and rooted in a thousand years of faith and ritual, the benefits of being in the woods has been validated by science. (The name is misleading; it has nothing to do with taking a bath in the woods.) A quick search online reveals a dozen studies in the last few years alone that suggest simply being in or walking around a forest environment induces a state of physiological relaxation in as little as 15 minutes. Over and over, studies have demonstrated improvements in stress hormone (cortisol) levels, pulse rate and blood pressure. More recently, several studies have been released suggesting the effects go well beyond calmative to strengthening the immune system, enhancing neuronal health, even preventing some cancers and tumours.
There are many theories why. Among the most widely popular today is that it is the result of the salutary effect of terpenes, a class of organic compounds produced by various plants and a major component of what we inhale while walking in the woods. While there is nothing yet that would be called conclusive evidence, there is a strong likelihood that these chemicals, emitted from leaves, pine needles, tree bark, shrubs, herbs, mushrooms, mosses and ferns, are like a chemical tonic for your system.
For a thorough understanding of the phenomenon, a book published this spring explores the topic in great detail. Entitled (with the usual overreaching subtitle) Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, the book explores the science and history of the practice of forest bathing. Author Qing Li, a professor and doctor at Nippon Medical School and the chair of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, explores the way being in the woods can help reduce stress, anxiety, depression and anger while increasing energy levels, improving sleep and boosting the immune system. He explores the history of the practice and cites studies from around the world that support his claims. Thankfully, the author steers away from some of the more spiritual tendencies of the “find yourself by getting lost in the woods” crowd. What he tells is a compelling story and confirmation of something any hiker will tell you: being in the forest is good for you. The other good news here is you don’t have to go to a forest in Japan, nor even a forest in the country. Taking a sojourn in your local urban woods — a park, conservation area, ravine, marshland, even a wooded cemetery — to soak up some terpenes, breathe in some healthy air and get a little exercise will help you live happier and longer.—