Fralsa Collective

Shinrin-Yoku: experience the Japanese forest therapy with a multi-sensory immersion in the woods

Get outside. Fill your eyes with the colors of the woods. Listen to the sound of streams, birds chirping, and the rustling of leaves as the wind blows through the trees. Take notice of the smells that emerge from the thicket. Touch the decades-old bark of the trees and feel the rough texture. This is “Shinrin-Yoku,” the Japanese art of forest bathing.

The regenerating power of nature is no secret. For a long time, we have known the comfort that sunlight, fresh air, and green landscapes can bring to those who take the time to wander far from cities. Science has proven that spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature can significantly improve well-being and mental health, lowering the chances of cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and even myopia. But there’s more to it.

A short history of “forest bathing”

For centuries the Japanese have been aware of the intimate relationship that exists between humans and nature. Since the early days of Shugendō – the ascetic form of Buddhism developed in the 7th century – water, trees, mountains, and flowers have been worshiped as sources of supernatural healing powers. The hermitic monks treaded through steep mountain ranges to find truth and inner peace – a tradition that, while changing form, has lasted until the present day.

In the deep red cedar forests of the Misugi Valley, between the Mia and Nara prefectures in Southern Japan, Shinrin-Yoku emerged in the 1980s as a wellness practice that promises to improve the health of both mind and body through full contact with nature. Literally translated as “forest bath,” Shinrin-Yoku is an activity that involves all senses and asks “bathers” to take a break from their daily routine to establish a deeper bond with the environment and with the self.

The term was coined in 1982 by Tomohide Akiyama, the then director-general of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, who was convinced of forests’ curative properties and decided to institutionalize the practice. Since then, Shinrin-Yoku has appeared as part of the official health and social policy. Over the years, the government has encouraged and promoted the habit of “forest bathing”, pushing citizens to devote themselves to this practice more frequently to make this activity widespread among the population.

The growth in popularity of Shinrin-Yoku had a double advantage. On the one hand, it improved people’s health, while on the other, it protected forests that city-dwellers had often neglected. By encouraging long sessions of mindful forest bathing, practitioners became newly aware of nature’s value, taking steps to protect it in their daily lives.

Shinrin-Yoku in the modern world

With thirteen and a half million inhabitants living on a surface of fewer than 850 miles, Tokyo is the most crowded city in the world. Today doctors often prescribe Shinrin-Yoku to their patients. It’s a frequent prescription for city dwellers that are often overworked and used to extreme routines. However, Shinrin-Yoku is no longer an exclusively Japanese phenomenon. As city living becomes more and more common, many around the world are looking at natural solutions to release stress and restore a more balanced lifestyle.

As Qing Li, the world’s best-known expert in forest medicine, reports in his best selling book “Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing” (2018), since the year 2000, humans have officially become an urban species. The number of people living in cities has grown from 746 million in 1950 to 3.9 billion in 2014. It is expected that by 2050, 75 percent of Earth’s population will be living in an urban environment.

Not only people are moving to cities – cities are expanding. In 2020, the science journal Nature published a study demonstrating that human-made materials now outweigh the Earth’s living biomass. In other words, the planet is becoming more artificial than it is natural, and while progress has brought obvious advantages, people are increasingly distanced from mountains, lakes, forests, and beaches. The US Environmental Protection Agency recorded that the average American spends 93 percent of their time indoors. 20% of Americans today spend their free time in nature only once or twice a month, and 16% of the US population never experiences the great outdoors.

If we consider the impact of technology on our lives, it’s easy to envision where the time spent away from nature goes – usually, in front of screens. Sleep deprivation, anxiety, and headaches are only some of the adverse effects that constant contact with technology has brought into people’s daily reality. It is easy to understand the modern attraction toward forest bathing, with its promise of lowering blood pressure, improving sleep and mood.

So, how does Shinrin-Yoku work?

A quick guide to Japanese forest therapy

Shinrin-Yoku is not a form of exercise in the traditional sense. It doesn’t involve hiking on trails, although walking is crucial to activate muscles and improve circulation. Simply, it is the practice of mindfully spending time in nature, taking notice of its effects on the body through all the five senses.

Let’s start with the obvious – to practice forest bathing, you need trees. It may seem trivial, but for an “immersion” to be beneficial, a place with a high concentration of plants is essential. While Shinrin-Yoku can be practiced in almost any forest, but the season should be taken into account. Leave behind your phone and any other device, and start by roaming aimlessly through the woods. Let the sensations that arise as a response to the natural environment guide you and try to reach a state of deep calm.

It starts with a muscle warm-up and stretching to prepare for the walk. Nordic walking is often recommended to people who spend most of their week sitting, as it’s great for posture. Walking is usually slow, with breaks for meditation. As little as two hours spent in a forest can bring huge benefits, but reaching a point of relaxation differs from person to person. Take your time to seek a suitable location – perhaps somewhere with a pleasant smell or a place that brings back pleasant childhood memories – and try to be aware of everything happening inside you.

It is important to spend a day completely immersed in the woodlands, focusing on the sounds of nature, its scents, seeking contact with the trees and plants, and allowing all senses to sharpen their perception.

The biophilia effect: the science behind Shinrin-Yoku

If all this sounds like some sort of new-age hippie practice, hang on. It’s not pseudoscience. It has been proven that immersing yourself in nature improves the immune system, increases energy levels, and decreases anxiety. But there’s more to it.

Dr. Mary O’Brien from the Royal Marsden Hospital in London has discovered that forest soil contains a substance known as “Mycobacterium vaccae” that helps people who breathe it feel happier. When injected into mice, M. vaccae, a harmless bacteria, closely resembled the effects of an antidepressant, increasing energy levels and boosting the immune system.

Japanese scientists have demonstrated that our immune system reacts to particles emitted by plants, the so-called “terpenes,” stimulating especially some of its specific functions. In particular, the number of killer cells produced by the body to attack infected or unwanted cells will increase significantly after just a few hours spent walking in the forest. Natural killer cells protect from viruses and tumorous cells, and people with a higher number of killer cells in their blood show a lower incidence of cancer. An experiment conducted by Dr. Qing recorded that after two nights in the forest, the killer cells present in his blood went up by over 50%.

In this sense, Japanese scientists have proven the “biophilia hypothesis” proposed by American biologist Edward O. Wilson, who believed that the existence of humans and nature are deeply intertwined. “Biophilia,” translated as “‘love of life and the living world” from the Greek, sustains that our well-being does not only improve thanks to nature – it depends on it.

Therefore, the therapeutic power of plants should be thought of as a form of prevention: walking in a forest, or even better, staying in a wooded area for at least 2-3 days as Japanese doctors advise, reduces stress hormones, preventing us from getting sick.

Where to practice Shinrin-Yoku around the world

In the last few years, several paths worldwide have been created to fully enjoy the experience of “forest bathing”. Japan is the obvious destination. The Akasawa Natural Recreational Forest, one of the most beautiful forests in Japan offering eight paths that unravel around the conifers north of Nagoya, was appointed a forest-therapy base by the Forest Therapy Study Group of Japan in 2006, and there are countless trails and national parks one can take advantage of around the country.

In the US

The Forest History Society lists 49 national forests to choose from across the country. Some of the most stunning nature reserves are the Olympic National Park in Washington – a green, often wet, landscape in the Olympic peninsula filled with fir trees, lush ferns, and Bigleaf maples -, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spanning across North Carolina and Tennessee, and Greensboro, in North Carolina. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides is active all around the country, offering support to those who would rather start their journey in forest bathing with the help of an expert.

In Europe

Forestry England, the government-run organization that protects and manages forests in the United Kingdom, has published a guide on forest bathing in the country. Hundreds of forests are listed on their website, ranging from the Grizedale in the heart of the Lake District, to the Tollymore Forest Park in Northern Ireland. The Black Forest, bordering France in Southern Germany, is another excellent destination for mindful walking in nature, featuring 1.5 acres of pine woodlands dotted by pristine lakes. For those used to colder temperatures, Oulanka National Park in Finland is another sensational destination. If you are lucky, you may even get a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

New Zealand

Known for the Lord of the Rings movies’ incredible landscapes, New Zealand has no shortage of lush forests. New Zealand has a well-maintained network of national parks and long-distance hiking trails perfect for a full immersion in nature. The 9 Great Walks traverse the country’s two main islands, offering the opportunity to experience both the volcanic landscapes of the North and the awe-inspiring fiords of the South. Huts can be rented to spend the night in most national parks, although they can fill up quickly in high-season. Rudyard Kipling has described the UNESCO World Heritage site of Milford Sound as one of the wonders of the world – we couldn’t agree more.


Those with a taste for the tropical might head to the island of Borneo, shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. While many of Borneo’s ancient forests have been cut down to make space for palm oil plantations, a dozen protected national parks still offer the opportunity to dive into the millennia-old woodlands populated by orangutans, rare birds, and colorful reptiles. The Lambir Hills National Park in the Sarawak region and the Kinabalu Park in Sabah, which surrounds Malaysias highest-peak are two destinations that will be hard to forget once you get back to civilization.