UD/MH Director Layla McCay made the intrepid trip from Tokyo to Okutama Forest to experience shinrin yoku, also known as forest bathing, a Japanese practice to improve mental and physical health. She wondered about lessons for urban design. Her experience could only be captured in the form of a comic interlude...
Around a quarter of people in urban Tokyo are said to regularly participate in shinrin yoku, or ‘forest bathing’. This Japanese practice was made official by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in 1982. It means spending leisurely time experiencing the forest with all five senses. The point is to walk slowly and mindfully, appreciating the sounds, sights, smells, feel and taste of the forest, far from the screens and chaos of city life. Substantial research has found associations between spending this time in the forest and improvements in physiological and psychological indicators of stress, mood hostility, fatigue, confusion and vitality, including reductions in heart rate and blood pressure.
I love hiking and I usually find it serene. So how does shinrin yoku differ from the ordinary hiking experience? First, only a limited number of specific forests in Japan have been designated as official shinrin yoku sites. Designation requires a wide variety of criteria to be met, from ensuring visitors can experience the forest with all five senses, to having specifically tall trees, to scientifically recording health impact, to ensuring trained forest assistants are on hand.
None of these assistants were in sight when I got off the train at the only official shinrin yoku site within Tokyo’s borders: Okutama Forest. But the woman in the visitors’ office kindly provided me with a hand drawn photocopy of the routes and marked one for me in pink highlighter pen. Then, with her vague point in the right direction, I was sent on my way.
The other hikers who had been on my train inexplicably vanished and soon I was alone in the forest, ready to find out how shinrin yoku differs in practice from ordinary hiking in a forest. Without a proper guide, and being a little too much of an urbanite, I don’t know if I really found out. But since you didn’t get to join me, I will bring you inside the experience by welcoming you into my thought process over an hour and a half, one sunny Tuesday morning.
Walking down these steps, I see so many trees and greenery. I smell the forest. I hear the burbling river. It’s so serene. So quiet.
I hope it’s safe that I came here alone.
Oh my goodness, what’s that noise?
Oh, it’s my paper map crinkling in my hand. So 1990s. How lovely to have escaped technology. Better look at the map. Hmmm the route is very unclear. Cross this bridge? Maybe not. Oops, I think this is the wrong direction. Reverse. Google Maps has destroyed my orienteering skills!
Oh, but I do have my phone. Okay, let’s check Google Maps.
Google Maps doesn’t have this route. Hmmm this is not very relaxing so far. Oh, but here’s a sign, and it's in English. I apparently just walked the Okutama Fureai Shinrin yoku course, Hikawa Ravine without even realizing.
That wasn’t a very dramatic ravine. Or shinrin yoku experience. Onwards.
Oh, a paved road. That’s partly disappointing and partly reassuring. Also, a vending machine. Mmm cold lemonade. Delicious. Not sure that’s the taste of the forest the shinrin yoku experts had in mind.
Hmmm the directions to the next route are written in Kanji. I’ll ask Google Translate.
Urgh, Google Translate is bad at reading kanji carved into wooden direction posts. But I do recognize that one kanji means mountain. Think I’ll go the other way.
That was the wrong way. Reverse. Ouch, these ferns are jagging into my leg.
Aaargh a wasp! Or could it be one of these deadly Japanese hornets?
Pep talk time. Come on, enjoy the nature.
Oh okay, maybe this is the next forest bathing entrance. Japanese people clearly like to keep their signs subtle…
No, that was someone’s garden.
Oh okay, THIS is the entrance. Yes! Forest therapy. The Toke Trail. Now we’re talking! This is cool. The other therapy trail felt like just an ordinary hiking trail. This one is fancy. It has gravitas. It starts with a well kept, modern little hut. Oh, it’s locked. Hmmm maybe Tuesday morning is a sub-optimal time for forest bathing. Is the whole trail closed? No. Onwards!
How lovely that they have a special little train track and carriage for people in wheelchairs or who have other mobility challenges. Also, the walking trail is nicely kept, covered in chipped wood. The mountain views are beautiful. The trees are so tall. The sun is so bright.
Hmmm, better stop and put on some sun lotion.
Come on, be more mindful!
Oh this is nice. Charmingly designed. Lots of little chairs and tables of different types, tastefully blend into the scenery, encouraging you to linger and appreciate the scenery. Little viewing stations where you can curl up in a nook and look directly out into the forest. Maybe I’ll do that later. Wonder what the long, sloped table is for. Probably should have come on a weekend – they probably have activities. It’s so secluded today. I’m the only person here. So lovely.
Oh gosh, it’s a snake. Okay, freeze. Assess.
Yup, it’s a snake. It’s quite long. About a metre long. And it’s turned to look at me.
Why is there nobody else on this path?
Is it a poisonous snake? How would I know?
Google: Okutama forest snakes dangerous?
Google result: 'The world’s deadliest snakes', '25 of the world’s most venomous snakes', '10 most poisonous and most dangerous snakes in the world'.
I may have to stand here frozen forever.
Facebook: 'Alone in the forest and too scared to walk past a snake. I knew hiking alone was a harebrained scheme. He’s looking at me. Help!' (photo attached)
Facebook result: One like, three open-mouth emoji faces from urban friends.
Twitter: 'Snake etiquette please? March past him and hope for the best? Turn around and abandon walk?' (photo attached)
Twitter result: 'Doesn’t seem to be a viper which is good, so I’d walk past slowly, trying not to disturb him/her.'
Duly chastened for making gender assumptions about snake. Close eyes and dash past, in direct contravention of the slow walk instruction. Snake does not pursue. Though I am convinced he/she does for about 100 metres.
Heart pounding. Remember the research about the heart rate-reducing properties of the therapy walk. Alas.
Walk more rapidly than appropriate for a therapy walk. See a twig. Scream preemptively in case it’s a snake. Why is there nobody else on this path?
Pass hut number two. Locked again. Has yoga things inside. It would be nice to do yoga while looking out at the forest. But it’s not for me, apparently. Onwards.
Aaargh a… twig. Okay. Stop this. Enjoy the nature.
What’s that noise?! Oh, my map crinkling again.
Aaaargh something’s on my face. Oh, a spider web.
Not relaxed. Text friends to tell them I’m still alive. They are at work and unmoved.
Tell Twitter I’m still alive. Twitter asks if I have a bear bell. I do not, but suddenly recall the jangling of bells from fellow hikers on the train. And the picture of a bear outside the station accompanied by Japanese writing I failed to read.
Apparently I now have to sing to protect myself from bears. Relaxation is further diminishing (along with that of any person within earshot – of which there still appears to be none).
Thank goodness, a paved road.
Oh, I mean Awwww, what a shame the therapy walk is over.
Oh, a ten minute walk down the road and I can pick up the Fureai Shinrin Yoku path again.
Aaaargh, what was that?
I see three helicopters overhead. I wonder if Twitter has sent someone to rescue me.
Another signpost, another Google Translate fail. But aha, do I see the character for station? I believe I do.
I’d brought a picnic but am too paranoid to eat it til I’m back in town and there are no more scenic picnic tables.
Well that was a bit embarrassing. I think I did shinrin yoku wrong…
On the train back to the city. All the hikers’ bear bells are jingling as they serenely look at me, and they seem to be thinking: 'well, if you brought your laptop on shinrin yoku, you were already doing it wrong'.
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