Japan and Shinrin-yoku

Time in nature

How often do you return from a trip to the woods and think ‘I wish I hadn’t done that’? Most of us recognise that time outside, especially in beautiful, natural places, feels good. Researchers across the globe, have in recent decades, systematically studied physical and psychological changes which occur in humans after exposure to the natural world. In this series of blogs, we will take a short tour around the world, looking at research and approaches to human wellbeing in natural settings. We begin this week in Japan and the practice of Shinrin-yoku.

This phrase translates directly as ‘Forest Bathing’, but could more accurately be described as ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ (so no swimming costumes are required!). The term Shinrin-yoku was coined in 1982 by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, in response to Japanese health issues. Increasing levels of stress and stress-related diseases in Japan were linked by researchers to city life-styles, heavy workloads and ‘technostress’ (relentless exposure to digital devices). The Japanese aimed to use their extensive woodlands as preventive medicine against life-style related diseases.

The science
Bear with me while we do a quick dip into the science- it is worth understanding what is happening to our bodies when we are stressed or relaxed.

Most of the time, we should be in the ‘rest and digest’ or parasympathetic nervous state, with normal heart-rates and digestive processes and the body able to repair itself. Stress causes us to enter ‘fight or flight’ mode, through the initiation of the sympathetic nervous system. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol flood the body, increasing the heart-rate and reducing the activity of bodily functions unnecessary for the immediate escape from danger (great if you need to run away from a tiger or fight spear-wielding thugs). Returning to the ‘‘rest and digest’ state after danger (back to the safety of the village, snuggled by the fire), is essential for physical and mental wellbeing.

In the UK today however, mild stressors can trigger the ‘fight or flight’ state repeatedly through the day. For many of us, walking through crowds, running late for meetings and the constant ringing and pinging of our phone stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, the body not returning to a relaxed state between each stressor. This can affect our quality of life and potentially lead to stress-related diseases, including heart disease and stroke, diabetes, cancer and mental-health illnesses (REFs. 1-3).

For forty years, the Japanese have been developing evidence-based Forest Bathing practices aiming to improve quality of life and lower the incidence and effects of stress-related diseases. Studies have taken place recording the physical and psychological reactions of participants to Forest Bathing, through the monitoring of heart rates, blood pressure, frontal lobe activity, urine and saliva tests and psychological tests. The results suggest that Forest Bathing generally reduces the activity of the sympathetic (flight and fight) system and the occurrence of negative emotions. Meanwhile, the parasympathetic (rest and digest) system gains ascendency, the subjects usually relax and feel happier. Astoundingly, Forest Bathing also appears to increase people’s levels of anticancer proteins and NK cells (‘natural killer’ white blood important in the body’s fight against cancer and virus cells) (REFs. 5-8).

Leaves emerging - new life
Leaves emerging – new life. (photo Nicola Strange)

Shinrin-yoku practice in Japan
Each year, 2.5-5 million Japanese people practice Forest Bathing at over 60 government-ordained Forest Bathing stations, often through a prescription from their doctor. Sessions aim to help participants engage their senses with the forest through gentle walking, observing and meditational practices. Guides take participants along planned routes.

Japanese style Forest Bathing
Japanese style Forest Bathing (Photo: Park 2010, p.20)

Walking is slow, allowing time to soak up the sights, smells and sounds. Stops are made for simple observation of scenes or locations of particular beauty. Many stations offer extras such as waterfall viewing, direct contact with trees, crafts, yoga and hammock time. It sounds good, doesn’t it?

Hammock time
Hammock time. (photo Nicola Strange)

Shinrin-yoku for you?
My husband asked me yesterday, as we walked 10 miles around the Forest of Dean, if hiking still had the benefits of Forest Bathing Japanese style? I answered yes. Although we were not taking in the forest in the slow method of Shinrin-Yoku, our senses had been filled with the smell of pines, the touch of the wind on our faces and the endless greens of the summer trees. We certainly felt immersed and extremely well for it.

Family time
Family time. (photo Nicola Strange)

A whole day out is great, but taking yourself somewhere you can observe trees or natural beauty for only 10 minutes, even in the garden or park, will begin to give you the benefits outlined above. Try and stop and use your senses to help you immerse. Ask what can I hear? See? Smell? Feel? Even taste? What makes you smile?

Ask what can I hear? See? Smell? Feel? Even taste? What makes you smile?
Ask what can I hear? See? Smell? Feel? Even taste? What makes you smile? (photo Nicola Strange)

If you are particularly interested in Shinrin-yoku, please see the list of recommended books at the bottom of this article. Let us know how your explorations in Forest Bathing go. We would love to hear from you on our Facebook page.

Right now, I need to finish being on a laptop and get outside!

Next time, we’ll continue our tour with a look at nature well-being research and practices in North America.

Recommended books on Shinrin-yoku
Dr. Qing Li 2017, ‘Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness.’
Y. Miyazaki 2018, Shinrin Yoku: The Japanese Art of Forest Bathing


  1. Chida, Y., Hamer, M., Wardle, J. et al. 2008 Do stress-related psychosocial factors contribute to cancer incidence and survival? Nat Rev Clin Oncol 5, 466–475. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncponc1134
  2. Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Miller GE. 2007 Psychological Stress and Disease. JAMA. 298(14):1685–1687. doi:10.1001/jama.298.14.1685
  3. Liu Yun-Zi, Wang Yun-Xia, Jiang Chun-Lei 2017: Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience; 11. P.316 URL=https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00316    DOI=10.3389/fnhum.2017.00316   
  4. Juyoung Lee, Qing Li, Liisa Tyrväinen, Yuko Tsunetsugu, Bum-Jin Park, Takahide Kagawa and Yoshifumi Miyazaki (2012). Nature Therapy and Preventive Medicine, Public Health – Social and Behavioral Health, Prof. Jay Maddock (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-51-0620-3, InTech, Available from: http://www.intechopen.com/books/public-health-social-and-behavioral-health/nature-therapy-and-preventivemedicine
  5. Yuko Tsunetsugu, Bum-Jin Park, Yoshifumi Miyazaki 2010: Trends in research related to ‘‘Shinrin-yoku’’ (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan, Environ Health Prev Med 15:27–37.
  6. Li, Qing & Kobayashi, Maiko & Kumeda, Shigeyoshi & Ochiai, Toshiya & Miura, Takashi & Kagawa, Takahide & Imai, Michiko & Wang, Zhiyu & Otsuka, Toshiaki & Kawada, Tomoyuki. (2016). Effects of Forest Bathing on Cardiovascular and Metabolic Parameters in Middle-Aged Males. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2016. 1-7. 10.1155/2016/2587381.
  7. Li Q. Effect of forest bathing trips on human immune function. Environ Health Prev Med. 2010 ;15(1):9-17. doi:10.1007/s12199-008-0068-3
  8. Park, B. J., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T., & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental health and preventive medicine, 15(1), 18–26. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9

Related posts