What is forest bathing? All about the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku

“The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness” – John Muir

The Duchess of Cambridge has revealed she’s a fan of forest bathing, and even used the Japanese wellbeing therapy as inspiration for her entry at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in 2019.

Taken from the phrase ‘shinrin-yoku’, forest bathing is thought to have medical benefits.

It’s more than just simply taking a stroll through your local park, ‘forest bathing’ is actually a highly involved, meditative process originating in Japan that promises a plethora of health benefits.

According to Dr Miles Richardson from Derby University, a specialist in nature connections, spending time taking notice of nature can reduce your blood pressure, increase your serotonin levels, boost your immune system and bring balance to your emotions, making you happier and calmer, and resulting in significantly improved physical and mental health.

Dr Qing Li of the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo suggests a three-day stay in the forest is ideal, but you can also benefit from a walk in a woodland area.

Shinrin-yoku literally translates to ‘forest bath’ and was invented in the 1980s, a period during which Japanese people were literally dropping dead due to over-work and burnout (two conditions that are more prevalent than ever now).

High blood pressure, heart problems and mental health issues were plaguing Japan’s citizens, and it was discovered that physical activity could reduce health issues and phytoncides, a chemical released by plants, could boost the immune system.

To combat rising concerns around wellbeing, the Japanese government officially incorporated shinrin-yoku into the nation’s health program. It’s since spread across the world, and sessions are now offered in a variety of different Australian locations.

Nightcap National Park, near Lismore, New South Wales
The Byron Shire is blessed with vast areas of easily accessible forest wilderness.

The Nightcap National Park is home to one of the area’s hidden wonders: Minyon Falls. But the quieter Mount Matheson loop or Protesters Falls walking track may prove more tranquil experiences for quietly exploring the benefits of forest bathing.

Centennial Park, Sydney
Centennial Parklands is the ‘green lungs’ of Sydney. Comprising three urban parks – Centennial Park, Moore Park and Queens Park, almost 31 million people visit the parks annually.

There are a few prime forest therapy locations within the parks. The Pine Grove is located in the centre of Centennial Park, it is amidst a thick cluster of pines with a bed of pine needles on the ground.

The pines at Ash Paddock is a popular area of sloping grounds with pines. The site was once converted into the slopes of the Canadian alps for a TV commercial.

Paperbark Grove is a wonderful avenue of paperbark trees with a shaded barbecue location and adjacent grassy areas.

Southern Highlands, New South Wales
There’s something for every kind of traveller in the Southern Highlands of NSW, a long- favoured escape for Sydneysiders. The cooler, more temperate climate and picture-perfect villages set amongst green rolling hills and forest reserves have been attracting visitors for more than 140 years.

Experience Nature offers a dedicated forest therapy workshop with Christie Little, the first internationally certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide in NSW.

Royal Botanical Gardens, Melbourne, Victoria
Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens were established in 1846 by Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe. They feature a range of ornamental ponds and lakes and a series of gardens and plant collections based on particular ecosystems and areas of the world.

Fern Gully is a summer sanctuary, providing the perfect microclimate for plants and visitors alike. Originally designed nearly 150 years ago, it’s typically two or three degrees cooler than the surrounding landscape on hot days and is the perfect place for some forest therapy. It boasts a gorgeous array of ferns, palms and shrubs, which provide respite from the heat, and secret Wellbeing Gardens tucked away in shady nooks and crannies.

Occasionally, the gardens even hold special forest therapy events.

Tarra Bulga National Park, Victoria
With its lush gullies, giant mountain ash trees and tree ferns, Tarra Bulga National Park is one of only four major areas of cool temperate rainforest in the state.

There are numerous walking tracks that emanate from picnic areas that allow you to meander through the forest. Head south down to Tarra Falls, or take the Fern Gully Nature Walk, which includes magnificent views along the famous suspension bridge. Take it slow and take it all in as the rainforest is a haven for plants and wildlife.

How to maximise your experience

  • Choose a forest or park with a good density of trees. For best results, trees should be a minimum of 5m tall on land with a tree canopy of more than 10 per cent and an area greater than 0.5ha.
  • Absorb the forest through your five senses – smell, sight, sound, touch, and taste.
  • Avoid exhausting yourself. Rest if you feel tired, drink water or tea if thirsty.
  • Take your time. Sit and enjoy the scenery or read a book. The idea is to let the forest work its magic on you.
  • If possible, take a spa after the experience.
  • For optimum results, a two night/three-day forest trip is best.
  • For a whole day of forest bathing, stay in the forest about four hours and walk about 5km. For half days, stay in the forest about two hours and walk about 2.5km.

How do you feel when you’re in nature? Do you retreat to the forest when you need to slow down and relax?

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Written by Ellie Baxter

Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.

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