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Stressed out? Bathing in the woods is just what the doctor ordered

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

If you go down to the woods today — and you should — leave your smartphone behind. Find a spot by a bamboo grove or take shade under a camphor tree and immerse yourself in the total effect of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”

This is the message Qing Li, a doctor at Nippon Medical School and the president of the Japanese Society of Forest Therapy, has been promoting for the past 25 years: The forest can save us, or at least heal us. First, however, we need to find the trees and make time for it.

Last month saw the culmination of more than a decade’s research by Li into forest bathing distilled into a new book “Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing,” published by Penguin in the U.K. and the U.S., and slated for translation into 18 languages. It’s a big, thick book, beautifully illustrated, and it makes for easy and enlightening reading.

I spoke to Li after he finished a shift at Chiba Hokusoh Hospital, where he works as a clinical physician, shortly before he took off on a mini-publicity tour around Europe to promote the book and the practice of forest bathing. Whoever said that laughter is the best medicine, well, the good doctor is at risk of overdosing. He laughs readily and heartily.

“I’m always happy,” he says, adding with a laugh, “because I do shinrin-yoku.”

‘Vegetable valley’ to Yakushima

Li, 57, was born in Caiyuangou, a rural outpost in Shaanxi Province in China’s vast northern interior. The kanji that make up Caiyuangou literally mean “vegetable valley.”

It was a bucolic, if tough, environment. Li’s memories of trees date back to his childhood, when he used to play hide and seek among the green poplars in the hills around his village, and scour the woods for rabbits, foxes and Chinese hamsters. “There was also a beautiful apricot forest in my village, which flowered pink all through April,” he says. “I can still remember the taste of the apricots we harvested in the autumn.”

But beyond the apricot groves there was a harshness to life in Caiyuangou. There was no running water or electricity, and Li often walked barefoot. There was also no doctor in the village, which spurred Li to study medicine, first in China and from 1998 in Kagoshima, where he earned a doctorate in environmental medicine from Kagoshima University.

Li chose Japan because he wanted to study advanced medicine. Starting over in Japan wasn’t a difficult fit, Li says, noting how much the two countries and cultures share.

It was while studying at university in Kagoshima that he inadvertently started down the path that would lead him to forest bathing, a practice he has done more or less every day of his life for the past 30 years.

Together with a few university friends he took a trip to Yakushima, a subtropical forested island 135 kilometers south of Kagoshima Prefecture. Yakushima, as well as being a U.N. World Heritage site, is also home to one of the oldest extant trees in the world: the Jomon Sugi, a red cedar estimated to be anywhere between 2,000 and 7,000 years old.

It was on this Golden Week adventure that Li became convinced “that forest bathing was absolutely essential to human health.”

“That visit,” he recalls, “was as inspiring as it was fascinating. It was also to have an important impact on the whole direction of my life and my future research.”

Trees have long played a role in our well-being, even if as a species we are moving farther away from forests. As Li outlines in his book, nearly 80 percent of Japan’s population lives in urban areas. What’s more, increasingly we are becoming an urbanized indoor species: Li writes that according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the average American now spends 93 percent of their time indoors.

For Li, this break from nature goes against our own nature. “We are hard-wired to affiliate with the natural world, and just as our health improves when we are in it, so our health suffers when we are divorced from it,” he says.

“Some people study forests. Some people study medicine. I study forest medicine to find out all the ways in which the forest can improve our wellbeing.

“I want to know why we feel so much better when we are in forests,” Li says. “What is this secret power of trees that makes us so much healthier and happier? Why is it that we feel less stressed and have more energy just by walking in the forest?”

For the past 13 years, Li’s research has led him, and his test subjects, on pilgrimages back into the forest in search of answers.

Roots of forest bathing

What many people perhaps don’t realize is that forest bathing — or the name, at least — was invented by a Japanese bureaucrat in 1982, during the height of the country’s economic boom.

Tomohide Akiyama, then the director general at the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Agency, coined the term shinrin-yoku in the hope of getting people into the forests so that they might escape some of the excesses of the bubble years. Akiyama’s motivation was two-fold: He believed that by getting people to care more about their own well-being, they might also care more about the health of forests. But the benign side of the forestry agency belies its janus-faced polices. Beginning in the postwar period, the agency spearheaded a widespread policy of clearing buna forests — old-growth woodland — felling as many as 17 million trees to make way for fast-growing cedars.

As environmental journalist and scientist Hiroyuki Ishi points out, by 1985, artificial forests accounted for 44 percent of Japan’s total forest cover. Li, who has collaborated with the Forestry Agency on research programs, acknowledges that hay fever due to the over-planting of Japanese cedars is a big problem in Japan, especially during the peak hay fever season in early spring.

Take a walk on the wild side

For proponents of forest bathing, spending time among trees offers a panacea for a range of modern ills, including stress, depression and anxiety, as well as the power to boost the immune system, decrease anger and even help you sleep better.

Li makes time for forest bathing every day, even if it’s only spending time in the company of trees while eating his bento lunch. He usually ducks out to Nezu Shrine, close by to Nippon Medical School, which is one of his favorite spots in central Tokyo to practice forest bathing.

I asked Li if he is in the habit of talking to the trees, a la Britain’s Prince Charles, who reportedly talks to his plants. “I usually touch the tree for about 15 to 20 minutes,” Li said, adding with a laugh that he normally delivers a few encomiums and endearments of the type usually heard whispered by lovers. “I only have good words for them.”

Since 2016, Li has returned to clinical medicine, as he wants to improve the health of patients using forest medicine. Prior to that, much of his time was devoted to teaching and researching. For six years, up to 2015, one of his most popular classes was a field trip — or a forest bathing trip — for third-year medical students. Every Monday Li would lead a dozen or so students on forays into parks and forests in Tokyo and beyond. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the course was always oversubscribed.

Before we finish, I ask Li to explain what shinrin-yoku means to him, not as a proselytizer but as a practitioner.

“Shinrin-yoku is like … medicine. Like good medicine. Shrinin-yoku makes me happier and more active.”

And then, Li laughs.

Shinrin-yoku: A dip in the forest

Shinrin-yoku is a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “forest” and “bath.” As Qing Li explains, shinrin-yoku simply means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses.

The doctor advises people to interact and react to the forest environment: “Touch the trees, taste the air, breathe in the fragrance of the forest, behold the multitude of colors, listen to the wind blow and the birdsong.”

While forest bathing doesn’t require any type of exercise such as hiking or tai chi, there’s nothing to stop you doing it. “There’s also nothing in particular you need to do,” Li says. “You can do anything you like. This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.”

Here is Li’s 10-point plan for forest bathing:

Make a plan based on your own physical abilities and avoid tiring yourself out.

If you have an entire day, stay in the forest for about four hours and walk about 5 km. If you have just a half-day, stay in the forest for about two hours and walk about 2.5 km.

Take a rest whenever you feel tired.

Drink water or tea whenever you feel thirsty.

Find a place you like, then sit for a while and read or enjoy the scenery.

If possible, bathe in a hot spring after the forest trip.

Select the forest bathing course based on your aims.

If you want to boost your immune system, a three-day/two-night trip is recommended.

If you just want to relax and relieve stress, a day trip to a forested park near your home is recommended.

Forest bathing is a preventive measure, so if you come down with an illness, see a doctor.