By Mark Ellison
In October 2023 the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT) in collaboration with Future with Forest coordinated a historic first ever tour of shinrin-yoku trails in Japan, including the birthplace of the practice. Guides from Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Colombia, Canada and the United States soaked in the hospitality, collegiality, culture and knowledge that was so graciously extended by our hosts and guides from Japan.
We converged in Tokyo and departed via bus on a Friday morning for a 7 hour bus trip to Agematsu, Nagano prefecture. We slowly emerged from the buzz of Tokyo, becoming immersed in the bucolic mountain countryside of Japan. We quickly learned how incredibly hospitable the Japanese people are. Our hosts from Future with Forest (Nagisa, Lea, Sumie and Kota) were always smiling, cheerful and incredibly helpful. Along the way we stopped for lunch at a lovely winery. Arriving in Agematsu later in the afternoon we gathered in the community center to learn about the town and Akasawa National Recreation Forest, our destination the next day.
On our second day we basked in the beauty of Akasawa Natural Recreation Forest, the birthplace of shinrin-yoku. It was humbling to be at the place where this beautiful practice originated. The sacred log was brought out to greet us as we arrived. During the introductory session they took our blood pressure prior to beginning the walk, and did so again after. We were divided into smaller groups to enjoy several hours in the forest. The guides for my group (Yoko and Kota) helped us learn about the history of the forest and its beautiful trees and plants. We were able to experience the ceremonial singing to the sacred tree before we returned for lunch.
Images from Akasawa Natural Recreation Forest
After lunch, we spent time carving wooden spoons which served as a wonderful way to get to know the people we were sitting with. We had our evening meal together which facilitated the connections many of us were starting to make with each other. This was sort of like summer camp!
Our next stop was Okutama, located west of Tokyo, an approximately 7 hour trip. Our accommodations were at the hotel Okutamaji. That evening, Amos Clifford shared about ANFT, and we got to learn more about Future with Forest and get to know the Japanese shinrin-yoku facilitators. The evening ended with a celebration and dancing (can’t get enough of that!)
We made our way to the Fragrance Road Toke Trail and spent time with shinrin-yoku guides who led us on a walk in small groups. This trail supported the shinrin- yoku experience in so many ways: a wooden platform for yoga or laying down to view the sky, places to rest along the way, a water therapy sink, a tea house, even a monorail to assist people in wheelchairs. All of this was beautifully integrated into the surrounding environment.
After the walk and lunch, we proceeded to the Okutama Public Hall for a time to reflect and say goodbyes. The closing circle provided an opportunity to share and express gratitude. There were tears in many eyes. It was difficult to believe the experience was already concluding and we were going our separate ways.
Reflections on the Tour
You have learned about what the trip involved. Now read how several guides reflected on it, as well as Nagisa Ono who coordinated the tour.
Akari lives in Yakushima and Tokyo. In Yakushima she is a shinrin-yoku guide and creates trips to help people get in touch with nature.
Describe the experience of guiding people from other countries: “It was a wonderful experience for me. I’ve never been to forest with foreign people. First, I got nervous because I didnt know if we could communicate in different languages. But, in the forest we became friends quickly and we were moved together by the beauty of the forest, like children. In the forest, it doesn’t matter what language we speak, we are all human beings. I learned that we can be friends in the forest even if we don’t speak the same language."
Nagisa Ono founded Future with Forest in 2015 which has a mission to aim for a future that is a sustainable society where nature and people live in harmony. It aims to create a deep connection in which forest and people grow together, and contribute to the wellness of people by nurturing sensibility through shinrin-yoku. Nagisa's reflections on the tour:
"This tour, like I told everyone at the closing ceremony, was a huge challenge to me.
It was because this tour wasn’t only about for the participants to experience Shinrin-Yoku, but for the important purpose to help the participants, from different parts of the world, understand the long standing relationship of Japanese people and its forest."
"If you ask Japanese people how to do Shinrin-Yoku, there would be no one who has a concrete answer. This is because Shinrin-Yoku is very much integrated into everyday lives of Japanese people. (The term, “Shinrin-Yoku” is very familiar to everyone in Japan.)"
"Several years ago, I learned that there are methods or procedures of Shinrin-Yoku practice in other countries. Since then, I have been hoping to have a chance to express and explain about Shinrin-Yoku, which originally began in Japan."
"Life and culture with forests in Japan is the foundation of Shinrin-yoku. In other words, there have been unique ways in which Japanese people have been co-living with forests, and this is the background of Japan becoming the birthplace of Shinrin-yoku."
"It was very difficult to show this to people with different cultures, traditions and beliefs. However, this is the important foundation and core value of Japanese Shinrin-Yoku, and who we, Japanese, really are. We are the one who lived with forest and who have been living with forest. Therefore, I planned this tour in order to convey these important messages to the participants."
"I am planning to report about this tour to all people who practice Shinrin-yoku as well as the forestry agency in Japan."
"My biggest takeaway from this tour is that this is a great opportunity for Japanese people to reconsider our practice of Shinrin-Yoku and our relationship with forests again through explaining Japanese Shinrin-Yoku to people from other countries."
"I realized that it is time for us, human beings, to reconsider and re-establish relationships with nature, and Shinrin-yoku could be one of the triggers to start the process."
"I want to, and I will continue thinking about ways to co-live with nature by learning different perspectives and values through our keyword, “Shinrin-Yoku”. I hope we work and walk on the process together with you, Mark, and friends of ANFT. Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to share my views and thoughts."
Youmin Yap is a pioneer certified nature and forest therapy guide, as well as a yoga nidra facilitator based in Singapore. Youmin answered a few questions after completing a pilgrimage walk on the Kumano Kodo.
Why did you go on this trip? “I felt drawn to the professional learning and exchange that were to happen. It also felt like a “homecoming” to the forest therapy practice-we often introduce the ANFT approach as inspired from shinrin-yoku, but what is shinrin-yoku really?”
What were the highlights of the experience? "The sense of ease and connectedness among international and local forest therapy guides. There is no fixed way for shinrin yoku and there are a variety of approaches. Finally, “resting by the river at the Akasawa Forest (I felt like we had arrived).”
What were your takeaways from this? “The exact methods and approaches might differ, but the heart of all our work is the same. This is something I gleamed into after I caught myself just in time, before spiraling into what we might be very conditioned to compare and judge."
“At our closure of the event, my sharing was that we are like cousins of the same family."
She shared wisdom from Amos: “This beginner’s mindset is important on walks too-both for guides and participants. Once we claim we KNOW it, or know how nature provides, or know what story or therapy the person should receive, it kills the moment and magic.”
Wendy Figone is an Expert Level Myofascial Therapist as well as a Yoga Therapist, Certified Forest Therapy Guide and Compassion Ambassador (ACT) through Stanford University.
Wendy’s inspiration for going: “I had met Nagisa at the Forest Bathing conference in Sonoma and took her out into Armstrong Redwoods and felt a friendship budding, I had promised her to come visit Japan. Following the conference I decided to get my ANFT Certification. I felt strongly pulled to go on this trip with the idea of seeing our practice here though the Japanese vantage point, my perspective has greatly widened. Also, my goal is to open my way of seeing life through travel."
Highlights of the experience: “We went deep into the forest to study Shinrin-Yoku at its place of origin. I was awed by the level of hospitality that we received as a group of kindred spirits. I was struck by how the forest bathing paths are designed to make resting and sensorial activation very apparent and easy to access- lots of disability access, places to cool your hands, warming huts along the trail and places to recline."
"As a result of the trip, I am very interested in learning more about Shintoism. I fell in love with the shrines that are built to protect the forests. I came home with a new value in creating rituals and ceremony. It feels like our young culture here can use more time exploring purpose and meaning in life. "
"As a relatively new guide, I found it immensely helpful to get to know my fellow guides from various cultures. The meals were out of this world and amplified by some very meaningful conversations. I learned so much and received an abundance of support and encouragement, for which I am deeply grateful."
"When out in the beautiful Hinoki trees, we were invited to take a small stick and dig a hole and then smell the earth. Whoa! Then we went around smelling how different scents where in the holes that others dug. This made me thing about perception, and how much I assume before checking in with my senses. "
"Years ago, I listened to our Surgeon General speak about the epidemic of loneliness. I feel and see the disconnection caused by our increasingly fast paced world everyday in many faces. When we were all in the forest together, I kept getting an image or feeling that we were all children of this beautiful forest and our mission was to bridge a reconnection. I have never felt a deeper purpose (Ikigai) in my life. I also feel a deeper and more embodied connection with my forest as a result of our trip. I am definitely feeling called to go back to Japan. "
"I learned three new terms that are interesting: “Catching komorebi” which means taking a piece of white paper to catch and gaze at forest shadow play (you can also do this without the paper). Catching komorebi for 10 minutes really brings you into liminality. During my ANFT training I fell in love with nature journaling (John Muir Laws) which is the perfect accompaniment to forest bathing. During this trip I used my nature journal to catch komorebi as well as the flavor of the whole experience. "
"Secondly, I learned about Yugari, which is the fluctuations in a combination of nature sounds that is calming. There is an app that I found (of course!) that allows you to create your own combinations of sounds. I have been playing with how various sounds are soothing to me and my clients. I now see how the different combinations of nature sounds impact people in different ways. I grew up near the ocean and redwoods, so find those associated sounds seem to bring me back home. This app lets you go out to your favorite places and record your own Yuragi- complete with a photo. "
"The third new term I became familiar with was Sanpo Yoshi, literally meaning ‘three-way satisfaction,’ which advocated benefits to the seller, to the buyer and to the local community. Japanese merchants understood that they owed their business success to their communities and they gave something back. I translate this to forest bathing: good for me, good for you, good for the land. "
"Lastly, I was very impressed by Japanese generosity of heart and eagerness to share, it felt genuine and abundant. Our Japanese guides not only met our needs, but anticipated them. I felt inspired to reflect that back and definitely aspire to level up my awareness around hospitality on my walks. I am deeply grateful to have been so fortunate to go on the pilgrimage and wish the experience for all ANFT guides. I am also deeply grateful to Amos and the ANFT Guides who were so supportive and pleasant to be around. "
Mark Ellison (my first person account)
It was about visiting the birthplace of shinrin-yoku; basking in the beauty of the land; experiencing the generous hospitality of the people; making many new friends from around the world. Perhaps it was all these things and many more that made this so meaningful. Regardless, it was almost a trip I did not take.
I had been on the waitlist for this adventure and learned on August 15 that I would have the opportunity to go. I wrestled with being able to take time off from work on short notice. Did I need to invest time and money on this? Was this really something I needed to do? Am I really making a difference with my forest therapy practice? To top it off I did not feel great the days leading up to the trip. I was not sick, just not my typical high energy self. How could I miss the first ever tour of the shinrin-yoku trails in Japan though? I made the final decision to go when I got up the morning of my flight at 2am.
The answer to my lingering doubts appeared in my email inbox when I checked it one last time as I sat on the runway in New York getting ready to take off on the 14 hour flight to Tokyo. It was a link to a National Geographic article I had been interviewed for that had just been published online that morning about ANFT certified forest therapy trails. I smiled, and knew that this was the sign that I had made the right decision. Indeed I had, because it was the beginning of one of the most memorable journeys of my life.
Many described this as a pilgrimage, and indeed that is how it felt. I truly was in awe of the experience of traveling over 6,000 miles (18 hours) to the birthplace of a practice I stumbled upon as I finished up my doctorate at NC State more than a decade before.
We learned how guides encourage participants to hold their hands in front of and then behind their ears to see how things sound differently, or to look through circled fingers to isolate what you can see, and catching komorebi, the light through the trees on a piece of paper. We learned more about the Shinto influence in Japan and how that impacts the connection with forests and the environment. We learned that how we practice shinrin-yoku may not be exactly the same, but our love for the forest is.
We made many new friends from around the world. We learned from each other. We encouraged one another. And we are staying in touch. I had a wonderful conversation with Ken and learned we had many things in common and that he lives in a beautiful place (thank you Google Translate!).
There was so much about this experience that pushed my edges, challenged my thinking, opened my eyes. It changed me. I was expecting that visiting the forest therapy trails would be impactful, but more so it was the people. Future with Forest served as our host and guides from across Japan walked us through the forests, collaborated with us, and became our friends. This was such a rich cultural exchange.
Returning home I visited one of my favorite trails to hike. I was noticing things I had not in a long time. Things seemed different In a place I have been hundreds of times. The journey recharged, inspired and touched me in a way that has not happened in a very long time. As I sat and looked out over the mountains a turkey vulture soared beautifully over me on the wind currents. My spirit felt as though it was up there with it. Free. I feel so connected to nature, even more so than usual. I realized that I developed friendships, and built on existing ones, that are very special. I felt self awareness that I care deeply about the work I do related to helping people connect with nature. One of the biggest takeaways from the journey was that I need to lower the guardrails some and try more new things. Push myself. Grow.
Thank you Nagisa, Sumie, Lea, Kota, Piro, Jackie, Ben and Amos. Those of us fortunate enough to go will always embrace this and use it to fuel our work to help others.