Shinrinyoku… soaking up nature

You’ll probably agree that translation can be a stressful business at times. With that in mind, this year we decided to spend our summer holidays in the healing surroundings of the New Forest. Camping. Relaxing. Getting close to nature. In fact, we got more than close to nature; we literally immersed ourselves in nature… because it rained for three of the four days we were there.

And nature – in the form of New Forest ponies – also got close to us. Tip: don’t assume that zipping up your tent will protect your camping rations from wild ponies. It won’t. Some have worked out how to open tent zips. And for those that haven’t, or can’t be bothered, there are other equine techniques for “opening a tent”.

So, our summer holiday wasn’t uniformly relaxing. Which is a bit ironic, because not so long ago I translated most of a book on the therapeutic properties of nature; more precisely, the nature therapy of shinrinyoku. This Japanese “art” of forest bathing has been popping up everywhere recently, joining other Japanese lifestyle imports such as Mari Kondo’s hugely popular cleaning tips and even the somewhat nebulous self-help concept of ikigai.

The shinrinyoku book I translated was penned by a professor at Chiba University’s Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences, and was one of several on the topic published almost at the same time.

An obvious reaction, I suppose, is: what’s so new about using nature for health and relaxation? “The English Art of Rambling” anyone? But as I soon discovered, there’s a bit more to shinrinyoku than that. The book’s conclusions, for example, were solidly rooted in science: thirty years of empirical research on the physiological and psychological effects of nature therapy.

Researchers are using the latest medical technology to investigate why nature is good for our health. Wireless sensors have enabled field research that would have been impossible before. For example, low levels of brain activity in the prefrontal area can indicate relaxation, and that activity can be monitored with near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) devices that measure haemoglobin levels. Once, that would only happen in the laboratory, but now there are devices small and light enough to use while a subject strolls leisurely through the forest.

Still, isn’t this just a lot of time, effort and technology to demonstrate what we already “knew” – that nature is good for us? It sounds like shinrinyoku research could be a strong candidate for an Ig Nobel Prize. (Annual prizes given to odd and seemingly useless, scientific research. Japanese scientists feature regularly.)

But common sense or not, how nature affects our health is profoundly important. Doctors have surely been recommending the benefits of a relaxing stroll ever since Hippocrates. But there are many questions to be answered. What health conditions can be treated with nature therapy? How much contact with nature is necessary for a preventative medical effect? How much contact with nature do people have now? Ironically, access to nature in the home of shinrinyoku can be very limited. In Oslo, 68% of land is green space. In London the figure is 33%. In Tokyo, 7.5%.  

Shinrinyoku and the Art of Marketing

You could hardly blame the unsuspecting Japanophile for assuming shinrinyoku is a millennia old spiritual tradition, rooted in the mists of Japanese history, and intertwined with the Japanese people’s unique sensitivity to nature. In fact, the term was coined in 1982 by a government bureaucrat called Tomohide Akiyama.

Akiyama was director of the Japanese Forestry Agency and had been tasked with finding a way to utilize Japan’s neglected timber plantations. Cedar and cypress had been planted to supply timber for Japan’s post-war building boom. But from the 1970s and 1980s, cheap Asian timber imports made the plantations uneconomical. The forests served little use other than to annually send vast clouds of allergy-causing pollen wafting over Japan’s cities… as they still do today.

Akiyama’s Eureka moment was to market activities in the forest as “bathing;” 森林浴to go with taking a bath (入浴) or sunbathing (日光浴).His plan was a huge success. Today, there are shinrinyoku centers all over Japan. These venues and programs are half tourism, half medical treatment; not unlike Japan’s tradition of touji湯治 onsen cures. There are even related nature therapies such as enjoying the scents of the forest, star gazing and tree hugging.

Shinrinyoku has been promoted in a notably different way in the West. Despite its rather recent origins, it tends to be marketed as an ancient, or at least distinctively Japanese, “way” or “art”. It’s a tried and tested technique for importing Japanese culture that goes back to Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery.

Japanese “ways” are still being discovered. I did a quick check on Amazon and found the Way of Kintsugi (“embrace your imperfections and find happiness,” not mend your saucers, for some reason); the Japanese Way of the Rugby Fan (selling well, no doubt); the Way of Niwaki (I had to Google that one); and the Japanese Way of Feng Shui (spot the mistake!)

How green is your home office?

So, more practically, how can you sample a little shinrinyoku yourself? Well, you certainly don’t need to live on the edge of a forest. The writer of the book I translated told me how he had hosted shinrinyoku researchers from a Middle East nation. They lamented the fact that their country lacked forests. He replied that all they needed was raw nature, not actual forests. They could “forest” bathe in the desert if they wanted.

Even in the most urban environment, just having pot plants or fresh flowers in a room can reduce stress and improve health. Some shinrinyoku experts recommend schools place pot plants in classrooms to alleviate exam stress. How many translators have pot plants or flowers in their offices, I wonder? Meanwhile, it seems that forest aromas are one of the ways shinrinyoku works. You can recreate these indoors using essential oils such as the ones sold for aromatherapy.

A few minutes in the garden or a daily stroll in the park can do wonders too. Getting a dog is a great way to encourage yourself to go out each day. (And the physical and mental health benefits of having a pet would be another whole article). Joining a rambling or hiking club is yet another idea. And, last but not least, if you are really brave…. how about going camping?