What did a visit to Japan’s suicide forest teach me about forest therapy?

Unbalanced society

Once upon a time, Japanese society was more a forest civilisation than nowadays. People used the wood to build castles, temples and houses, or made bowls, cutlery and furniture. Today, most Japanese no longer live in castle towns and cities surrounded by forests, but in megacities such as Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya. As a result, they no longer come into contact with the roots of their culture and nature. Especially in Tokyo, the overcrowded daily life is also a headache for millions of people.

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Some have probably already seen videos about the overcrowded trains and subways, in which pushers with white gloves push the last passengers into a wagon. The Japanese call this the commuter hell or ‘tsukin jigokin’. There’s also ‘karoshi’, which means overwork suicide.

I myself also wrestle with this culture of many working hours. I only try to work for forty hours, but I also feel feelings of guilt when I leave the laboratory at seven o’clock and see that my colleagues are still at work. Most of my Japanese friends work seventy hours a week.

Japanese companies also do not indicate all hours, such as transport from the company to an assignment on the field, otherwise the statistics of overtime would be a bit too high. Since 2014, the government has been trying to change this by means of a law, but the Japanese are not getting the highest points for quick changes. What I also hear, as excuse from workers itself,  is that overwork happens because to to lacking skills from their side, being “not trained” enough and need to be more familiar with the job, or because they think they are irreplaceable and cannot let their company down.  Japanese people are very bad in “resting” or “quitting”, even if something seems it is not good. According to some scholars, it’s in their “culture”. There is even a story that when it was clear they would not won the second world war but they did not surrendered, a high positioned man said with a big sigh: “We do not know how to quit.”

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Suicide Forest

Aokigahara is  the most ‘popular’ place in Japan to commit suicide. The day before I organised the forest therapy expedition, I visited this forest at the foot of Mount Fuji, with my Norwegian and a Thai friend. Because of the volcanic soil the trees have a very strange shape, which looks like they can walk.

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Along the way, we saw that someone had put a package of flowers on a rock. We stopped for a while and wondered. The site’s popularity for suicide has been attributed to Seichō Matsumoto’s 1961 novel Nami no Tō (Tower of Waves). However, the history of suicide in Aokigahara predates the novel’s publication, and the place has long been associated with death; ubasute may have been practiced there into the nineteenth century: elderly were carried in the woods to die here, a more cruel version of euthanasia. Although they do not publish numbers of how many people die here every year to stop the association with suicide (and discourage), the last recordings say they find here annually 100-200 people.

Forest therapy

After I told the guesthouse owner that I am into forest therapy, he recommended me to visit Aokigahara. He told me that this forest is very enchanting and a walk can be very therapeutic. I was a bit surprised, because I knew this forest already, as the suicide forest, and also I have been there 2,5 years ago, during my first holiday to Japan, with my brother. Actually, my first novel (sorry, only in Dutch, will be released in couple of months), starts in Aokigahara and is based on my first visit back in the winter of 2016-2017. I still remember my brother and I had not a good feeling about this forest. There was almost no sound when we stopped walking and listened. It was very eerie and we were both sensitive to the negative energy around us. Hence, my brother and I decided to leave the forest as soon as possible.

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Memories and constant change

This second time was different. Maybe because I was there with a Norwegian guy who is very cynical about these kind of things. Maybe because I was in another phase of my life. In forest therapy, not the “guide” but the forest is seen as the therapist. Often, when we look for flows in nature, to synchronise with our own flows in our body, like our blood pulse, we look into a mirror. 2,5 years ago I was still new to Asia, but now it is already 3 years ago I live (most of the time) in Asia. I found a lot of time to develop myself and deal with my anxieties. I notice it in the way how I cope with failure, broken hearts, constant changes in spaces, apartments, job projects and people around me. It is different than some years ago. Or let me quote the brilliant  Hannah Arendt :

“Loving life is easy when you are abroad. Where no one knows you and you hold your life in your hands all alone, you are more master of yourself than at any other time”

We walked for like 40 minutes and did not exchange many words. It was raining a bit, and I also wanted some time to think and actually find strengths and arguments to enhance my resilience. As I mentioned before, I still feel guilty that I “do not do more” in the domain of work, about actually that I have a more healthy work-life balance than most of my colleagues here. But walking here, and reflecting upon what dark things these trees have witnessed, reaffirmed that being enough time in nature is good for us.

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Birch wood

Later, during the walk, it seemed my Norwegian friend and I were observing the same things. I had taken a pictures of birch wood that looked like they were chopped and put next to the road to rot there. Only birchwood. Later I wrote it down in my journal: It seemed all birch trees where the ones who died first. What got them killed? Why birch trees? I took also a photo, because I want to remind myself to figure out why this was the case.

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I had not noticed that 2,5 years ago, but then I also did not know the title of my book was going to be “Berkensap” (In English: Birch Water). My Norwegian friend asked me if there was a Japanese custom about birchwood. Norwegians, especially rural woodsmen like him, do have a cultural connection with birch, but yes, I had to disappoint him. Afterwards I did a short search on the internet, but the search was fruitless. If you know the reason why, please let me know in a comment.

Ghost stories

The forest has an historical reputation as a home to yūrei: ghosts of the dead in Japanese mythology. Like wisps, they lure passers-by off the path. Because of the magnetic bottom your compass doesn’t work and the density of the trees, passengers can easily get lost. My Thai friend comes also from a culture where spirits inhabit their horror stories and folklore (read this blog about Thailand for more insights), but before we entered the forest, she was not scared. Her comment:

“The ghosts talk Japanese, so it is ok. I do not understand them.”  

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Parts of this blog come from my article for a Belgian magazine. I translated and adapted them: https://www.mo.be/zeronaut/bosbaden-op-samoeraipaden

Birch cake and the colonization of Hokkaido’s nature and Ainu

Last month, my Norwegian friend and I explored Hokkaido, the northernmost bigger island of Japan, for almost ten days. I waited almost two years to visit this place, as I always imagined this friend to be my travel buddy into Japan’s wild. And yes, he also felt more home here than in Nagoya’s concrete jungle or other places. Actually, Hokkaido reminded us to the Nordic countries and New Zealand: both are a forest and wood civilization, with a colonization story and indigenous people (Sami in the Nordic countries, Maori in New Zealand). Even the birch trees and the rain almost let us feel we were back in Norway. In a previous blog I reflected already on and shared conversations with my friend about the side effects of the control -or colonization- of nature, referring to the demon worms in the amazing movie of princess Mononoke. Here I will elaborate upon this more by sharing what I learned during my Hokkaido travel.

Who are the Ainu?

The Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan (Hokkaido, and formerly northeastern Honshu) and Russia. According to the website of Ainu History and Culture:

“Ainu” means “human”. The Ainu people regard things useful to them or beyond their control as “kamuy”(gods). In daily life, they prayed to and performed various ceremonies for the gods. These gods include : “nature” gods, such as of fire, water, wind and thunder ; “animal” gods, such as of bears, foxes, spotted owls and gram-puses ; “plant” gods, such as of aconite, mush-room and mugwort ; “object” gods, such as of boats and pots ; and gods which protect houses, gods of mountains and gods of lakes. The word “Ainu” refers to the opposite of these gods.”

Official estimates place the total Ainu population at 25,000, but unofficial estimates place its total population at 200,000, because many Ainu have been completely assimilated into Japanese society and as a result, they have no knowledge of their ancestry.

I am not an expert. Most things I learned by reading occasionally some blogs, or by talking with other people, or through a book called “Our Land Was a Forest – An Ainu Memoir” by Kayano Shigeru, where he talks about their life so many time ago and how they cooperated with the nature, and tried to use everything from nature. For example they made clothes from bark:

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This Ainu clothing is made from the inner bark of the ohyodama or Japanese lime tree. Soaking it in water makes the inner bark softer and you can pull it off the bark. The Ainu cut it into strips with which this clothing was made. The symbols call “sirki” and ward off evil spirits. This “magic clothing” was passed on from mother to daughter.

On the other hand, they also killed bear cubs, and my friend and I saw a horrible black-white video about the killing of one, in the small exhibition in Sapporo’s botanical garden.  Sometimes we have romantic and nostalgic feelings about that the past was more sustainable, or that indigenous people are better for the planet, but it depends how you see it. They do it, because of their belief in spirits. According to the aforementioned website of Ainu History and Culture, by killing the bear cub they think they send back evil spirits:

There are various ceremonies throughout the year, including ceremonies to send back spirits, a religious ceremony for ancestors, a ceremony for the completion of new house, and a ceremony to launch the year’s first fishing of salmon and shishamo smelt. Sending spirits back, the most frequent of these ceremonies, treats and sends back the gods, who disguise themselves as animals, plants and objects, descend to the human world and supply food and other daily necessities. The ceremonies include “iyomante,” “hopunire” and “iwakte,” of which “iyomante,” a ceremony for the sending back of the spirits of bear cubs is the most important. “Iyomante” is observed between January and February when the fallen snow is heavy. A I to 2 years bear, which is captured in a hibernation den during winter, is sent back to the divine world by offering a splendid feast.

Tourism of lonely trees

It is not so related to Ainu, but a bit about how trees are also apparently popular in Japanese advertisements. Some trees along “Patchwork Road” are famous because they played a role in advertising, packaging (including cigarettes) or even in (animation) films. They are therefore a “must capture” for fanatic Japanese instagrammers, but also for romantic souls like me. My traveling companion and I did not participate in a bus tour myself. We prefer to look for unknown lonely trees in a smaller group. Also, some farmers cut the “popular lonely trees”, because too many tourists destroy crops while entering their fields.

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I like postcards (receiving and sending), especially those with lonely trees and a blue or green appearance. I found these beautiful specimens in a village in Hokkaido.
I am not surprised that I found dozens of postcards of lonely trees, because in Hokkaido there are even bus tours to visit “lonely trees”. 

Birch cake, or about the first pioneers

In Hokkaido we found a birch tree stump-like cake that was once crowned best (new) cake in the world. Of course I bought that ;). At the time the Japanese people opened the area around Hokkaido (some might call it Ainu colonization) in the 19th century, they had to cut down trees to clear a flat area “for development.” The felled straight trees were used for architecture; but all the other wood was used for charcoal and fireplaces. Such as birch wood. Sanporok is the size in which they cut the trees: the logs are made by splitting the tree vertically into three. San means 3 in Japanese.
During this pioneering period, the Japanese warmed themselves with logs of birch trees, which are actually pioneers among the trees. That is why this cake is named after this “measure” for logs to commemorate the old times.

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Embracing change

One of our last days was spent in the UNESCO geopark of Lake Toya . This lake was created 110,000 years ago in a gigantic volcano eruption. The volcano is one of the most active in Japan, and still erupts repeatedly. The last two times were in 1978 and 2000. The landscape is changing rapidly here. 🌀 It was once the home of Ainu, until the Japanese took over.
Together with one of my best friends I visited a site of houses and a bridge that suffered from the last eruption; and noticed how quickly nature had taken over. We learned how the residents take safety measures, but the most admirable thing is that they accept all those changes, and not flee from them.

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I think you can experience a lot of freedom if you are open to constant change and innovation in the world around you. 🌀 June was a beautiful month, but I am ok it is July now, with new adventures, landscapes, trees and people around me.

One last note about the colonization… also culture is very fluid, and many Ainu assimilated into the Japanese culture. Our world and cultures are constantly changing; however we should not marginalize some groups because they have different ideas, but find a way to integrate their knowledge and practices in building a more sustainable and tolerant world. However, some cultural practices like the killing of bears (or bullfighting in other cultures) should be revisited, because change is good.

A Druid’s Primer on Land Healing: Ecosystems, Interconnectivity, and Planting Guilds

In Belgium there is a movement to leave the ideal of grass lawns to wild gardens. My father and brother have already turned their gardens into heavens for bees and flowers. They sent me pictures and it makes me so happy. I recommend to read this article, especially if you are an owner of lawn.

The Druid's Garden

I had a recent conversation with a friend who lives in the town where I work (and where I used to rent a house). I had commented on how “nice” her lawn looked, as it was growing tall full of clover, dandelions, all heal, and so many other blooming plants; it was wild and beautiful.  She laughed and said that she wished her neighbor felt the same way!  She said that her lawn would have to be mowed that very day, and if she didn’t do so, her neighbor had already threatened her with calling the township due to the 6″ grass ordinance. Even though my friend isn’t a druid, this prompted a deep conversation about nature, ecology, and ecosystems. We started talking about the broader ecosystem, and the connectivity of all life–how she wanted to support insect life, bees, and larger life in her small patch of…

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Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath

Several weeks ago I experienced a first forest bath in one of the 62 certified forest therapy bases in Japan. You can read and see photographs in this blog: Forest therapy Taking Root. What I did not mention, was that we were… not alone.

 

Hill Worms

Two days before, the facility staff of the center told us to wear long sleeves, long pants and long socks that can cover the bottoms of the pants … because there will be hill worms that suck blood. It sounds more horrible than it was. In the end, the stress hormones of most participants decreased, despite the presence of these animals. You could also see who were the city dwellers and who were more used to bugs. I also brought one of my best friends. He comes from another large forest civilization like Japan, but with a much lower population density. He was showing me  as a happy child on discovery every time a worm on the top of his umbrella or shoe, while others around us were removing the worms of their shoes with sticks, as if it was a curse.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Actually, later I realised; when I reflected more with my Norwegian friend and one of the two Japanese forest therapy guides; that the worms are actually a good departure point to talk about “human control of nature”.

Forest civilisations

For a Flemish person it is striking that Japan is a real forest civilization. Even though the Japanese are twelve times as many as the Belgians, the population density is about the same. However, our country is not even 20% forested, while Japan is two-thirds forested. It may be one of the most populous countries in the world, but Japan is also one of the greenest, with a great diversity of trees. One of my research projects also regularly takes me to the countryside north of Nagoya, where I learned more about the fragrant cypress trees and forest culture and management from local experts over the past year and a half. My own professor is also interested in a “lignification” of the Japanese cities. Environmental egineers here talk about carbon storage and absorption of young trees, about the effect of trees in cities on thermal comfort and the subjective perception of temperature, the regulation of water management, reducing risk for landslides and erosion and other things. Forests are so important, and although I focus here mostly on cultural values and effects on mental health, as an environmental scientist I can give so many reasons why it is also good for the planetary health (and also for us). Trees are also central to Shintoism, their indigenous religion, and you often see how much respect they have for all their nature.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Since the 17th century there have been strict regulations on forestry and forest management. In the times of the samurai these were so strict that if you cut down certain trees in the Kiso valley (north of Nagoya) you even risked the death penalty. “A head for each felled tree, an arm for a broken branch,” that was the punishment. These trees were destined for the houses and temples of powerful families, or Buddha statues.

On the other hand, when I moved to Japan, I thought I would learn a lot about sustainable practices in environment, but how longer I am in Japan, how more confused I am. My Norwegian friend had also similar confused feelings as I had two years ago, and we found ourselves talking a lot about control of nature (and princess Mononoke).

Norwegian Outdoors vs Japanese forest bathing

In Norway it is quite normal to spend a lot of time in nature. My Norwegian friend explained to me that as early as the 19th century the urban working class in his country was encouraged to take the train to the woods every Sunday because, like the Japanese, they also had that intuitive knowledge that living in nature is good for you. But he was also a bit sceptical about all rules and procedures (for which Japanese are known) and did not like it that we were in a big group of more than 20. He is the kind of guy that enjoys the woods in silence, preferably alone. I have to agree that I also enjoy being in the forest on my own, or with people that make me feel comfortable. There is a poem of Mary Oliver which explains forest bathing how he and I enjoy it the most:

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During his flight to Japan, an article in the Norwegian media about the trend of forest baths also caught his attention. The Norwegian journalist thought that forest baths meant “simply swimming in a lake”. After my explanation he already said that he already automatically takes forest bathes every week.

“But do you open all your five senses?” I asked him, because I knew from experience that he had a rather high walking pace, and when it comes to forest baths, it’s all about moving through a forest as slowly and consciously as possible.
“Yes, it’s normal for us to touch leaves, rest our backs against a tree, smell pine needles and so on… I just do not need rules like the Japanese do. ”

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Why especially City dwellers should take forest baths

He did admit that forest baths are effective for urban dwellers, and that the role of nature people like him and me is to get city dwellers into the wild every week. He is pleased that Japanese city dwellers travel to the forest every week, but he also shared reflections on nature conservation and how sorry he thought it was that many places were too easily accessible for many people. He noted that too many mountains in Japan had a cable car. That day, he and I had been traveling for two weeks and did a lot of hiking, trekking and camping; from Hokkaido’s national parks to Mt Fuji. Many times he had remarked how much Japanese try “to control the mountain to make it accessible for everyone”.

He understood that access to nature must be a human right. “But not all nature should be accessible for everyone, because some places are dangerous for people who think they can climb a mountain with sandals, or who don’t realize that they need a guide or know what should be in a day backpack.  This results in blogs which say that for example Mt Fuji is tough. But Mt Fuji was not a difficult mountain at all. Now I understood they just were not in good shape and, or they did not bring the right gear, because they do not take the effort to get some outdoor skills and knowledge.”

We agreed that being nature is about understanding limits. Not only of ourselves, but also of nature. We have to respect that every place has a carrying capacity, and we have to not underestimate ourselves, especially in nature.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Princess Mononoke

Nowadays, these worms are there almost whole year, one of the forest therapy guides told us. During the allocation of this forest therapy base, these worms were not there, but then this was also a godforsaken place. Now animals from higher up bring these leeches when to go down; to this place in search of food, because man has reduced their territory. “There is a reason why Ghibli Studio choose these worms for princess Mononoke. It are always animals from higher up, from more remote areas, losing territory, that bring this curse to the human world.”

For those who have seen the popular animated film “Princess Mononoke”, recognizes that animals also came from the mountains and were possessed by these demonic worms squirming over their whole body. In this movie, the toxic used by some colonising humans causes the curse. In the beginning of the movie, one of the main characters get infected by this curse when he protects his village against a possessed animal. The movie is about his search to find a cure, but in the meantime he also learns more about forest spirits, wolves and the impact of the colonisation of nature.

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Screenshot of the animation movie “princess Mononoke”

This animation movie inspired me so many years ago to visit Japan, and stay there for some time, to reflect about the relationship between nature and culture, the impact of civil and environmental engineering. For me, I got maybe too excited about these worms, or curse spirits, but partly because it closes a circle for me.

I met the worms. I saw in the past two years very confusing images of infrastructure that let me wonder… why do we keep building (especially in a country which society is shrinking?). I know jobs have to be created, that accessibility is a human right … but sometimes it is good to rest.

What do you think?

Forest Therapy Taking Root

Our hectic society gives us little or no rest, so we often get overworked and overtired. Since the 21st century, forest therapy has been prescribed as a medicine for city dwellers to deal with stress and other “diseases” of a modern fast-paced society.

Shinrin Yoku

When the Japanese went to forests in the early 1980s, there wasn’t much scientific evidence about the benefits, but the people just felt intuitively that it was good for them.

The term forest bath or “shinrin yoku” was invented in 1982 by the Japanese agency of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, because “the Japanese needed the healing powers of nature”, and it was also part of a campaign to protect the forests.  Since then, more scientific and medical research has been carried out. At first, they thought that the positive effects on sleep and stress came from the fresh air, or perhaps the effect of the colour green, but they found that forests with a high content of phytoncides in particular had very healing powers. Trees produce these oils to repel insects and other enemies, but it has an opposite effect on the human body.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

Benefits:

  • reduces blood pressure and lowers stress
  • improves cardiovascular and metabolic health
  • is good for depression
  • boosts the immune system, increases anti-cancer protein production
  • improves your concentration and memory
  • even helps you to lose weight

The good news is that even a two-hour forest pool is enough. Not only the Japanese proved that. Recently the British published the same result that two hours/week would significantly increase your mental and physical healthy. In Scotland, doctors can already prescribe you to do a couple of days of retreat. Even the Duchess of Cambridge is since May an ambassador of forest therapy.

Better relationship with yourself and nature

As an environmental engineer with research interests in eco-psychology, I am also happy that forest therapy is taking root. Not only has it so many benefits for humans, but also for society and planet, as trees and forests have an important role, not only in climate change, but also in water balance, avoiding erosion and landslide dangers, and so on. For me, forest therapy helps to restore the relationship between nature and humans, especially city dwellers. Often the relationship comes from one way: we take from nature and dump our waste. We take it too much for granted. The same is also about ourselves. The modern society also let us neglect ourselves. Forest therapy is for me then a way to restore, or improve, the relationship with yourself and nature, which will result in a more healthy and satisfied life.

A Forest bath in Motosu-shi

Last Sunday, with the help of my friends of the Nagoya-located yoga studio Mind.Body.Space I organised a bilingual expedition to one of the certified forest therapy bases in Japan: we brought 20 other participants with us to Motosu-shi. There, a professional guide gave us a scientific and medical introduction on the effect of phytoncides on our hormones and nerves. The consultation consists of two measurements. Our blood pressure and heart rate were measured and they also took a sample of our saliva (amylase).

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(c) Joakim Nergaard Todnem

During a forest bath you will detach yourself from the outside world so that you can put all your energy into yourself and open up all your five senses to your immediate surroundings and to the present, so we asked everyone to leave their phones in a space provided by the consultation center. I was the only one who took a camera, partly because some participants were nervous that “they could not take photographs”.

The walk in the woods lasted an hour and a half and I think we only walked a kilometre. We took many breaks. The guide let us touch springs and snake-like plants, or smell pine needles. He pointed out the fluctuations in nature and said that people are especially calmer if they can synchronize their own fluctuations, such as blood pressure, with those of nature. It rained a little, so that the moss and ferns were beautifully green. We also often listened to what nature had to tell us.

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(c) Wendy Wuyts

We concluded with yoga in the open air. The water that seeped from the tree to my bare shoulders and the wind breeze made me feel completely at ease. I was in heaven. Afterwards our stress was again measured; many had booked progress and everyone returned back home with a big smile.

At the facebook page of Mind.Body.Space you can find back a photo album of our first forest therapy activity.

Some guidelines for a good DIY forest bath

    1. Above all, choose “your” forest. Once you’ve found your place, go there often. Build an intimate bond with the place.  Watch carefully how the place changes during the year.
    2. Don’t just go slow, don’t run or jog. Walking, jogging, Nordic walking… may be good for you, but forest bathing is something else. Stroll, focus on nature, sit down with your back leaning against a tree trunk, and observe what you hear, see, smell and feel.
    3. Invest enough time and the right time in forest bath. The absolute minimum duration for a forest bath is ten minutes. Try to have minimum two hours in total every week. A forest bath is at its best at sunrise or sunset.
    4. You shall not peek at your mobile phone. Take only what you need. If your cell phone is part of it, turn off the sound and put it in your pocket. Don’t take pictures.
    5. Don’t think, open up your senses. Breathe in and out slowly and deeply.
    6. Never do what’s uncomfortable.
    7. Celebrate dreaming and fantasizing and don’t hold back.

A note about taking photographs: As you noticed, I took my camera to the forest bath in Motosu, for the reason that other participants wanted memories (and were a bit nervous when they heard to leave their phones behind), and also for own promotional materials. Although I started with the lowest stress levels (which I attribute to the fact that I was trekking and camping in Japan’s biggest national park the week before), I saw an increase in stress after the forest bath. I was maybe the only one who did not progress. I was not immersed enough, as I was trying to capture the beauty of it, instead of getting captured.

This blog uses translated and adapted excerpts of my original (Flemish) article for Mo* magazine and will also be featured in the Japanese pocket magazine Find Yourself.

 

 

 

Continue reading Forest Therapy Taking Root

Nakansendo’s whispers – or different interpretations of Silence

“The entire kisoji is in the mountains” was the first sentence of the famous Japanese novel “Before the dawn” by Toson Shimazaki. The best way to explore the Kiso region of Japan, with its stunning nature and many traditional houses and culture, is by doing the Nakansendo trail. The Nakasendo trail (中山道 which means “middle mountain way”) is the old route that connected Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period. The section of the trail that winds through the Kiso Valley passes through two exceptionally pretty and well-preserved old Japanese towns—Magome and Tsumago, and makes for a nice day trip from Nagoya.

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In the last year I visited four times the famous hike from Magome-juku to Tsumago,  in a different season, with different company. Every time I see and experience new things, about Japan and sustainability, or even something like silence.

The first time was more like an adventure. Everything was new. We were a bigger group and hiked this in middle of August (2018). Later I would learn that in the height of Japanese summer it is better to hike in higher mountains than hike in lower, more humid areas. Some of us were suffering a bit from the heat. However, when we walked in the forests, there was a nice airflow. Although we were in a big group, sometimes there were moments I walked alone, or between people, and just enjoyed the nature in silence around me.

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The second time, I did this hike a with a Chinese friend in late October. First I thought it would be a bit boring, because I have hiked this before. We talked a lot, but the best part was when we took a break and just enjoyed listening to the sounds of nature. I invite often people to join me in listening to nature for some minutes. Actually, what is silence? I realised also that I was not bored at all, and even felt very comfortable that there was no excitement of unknown paths, but a new perspective to something that is familiar.

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The third time was with my parents in March. I had to carry their stuff and explain practices and ideas about Japan to them. I had again a different experience. I do not remember that much anymore, maybe because I was not so connected that much with the nature, but more with my parents. But I remember I point to an outstanding tree that I have remarked also the previous times. I do not know why. I just feel it has a story behind it. I greeted the tree in silent as an old friend.

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The last time was in June, with my bestie from Norway. When we had coffee in very tranquil and picturesque Magome with a view on old traditional wooden houses, he was in his elements. To a Norwegian man from the countryside, this feels more relaxing holiday than walking after a long flight in a busy mega city like Nagoya (which I let him do the day before)

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I love the wooden boards where they talk about the story or life of trees.

At some point we were somewhere hiking in an even more quiet place. With a small smile, he said it reminds him to home. I asked “because of the silence?”
“No, because I can hear a chainsaw.”

And that is when  also heard the chainsaw. For me this was a very quiet place, and I never remarked the chainsaw, but after his remark that sound became very “loud”. Some minutes later,  he added that when you hear a chainsaw in Norway you would see soon a moose; because in Norway they cut pine wood and they like to eat that.

It is interesting how walking with other people we even experience “silence” differently, and therefore even experience the same place or hike in different ways. I invite you to also repeat easy hikes as much as you can, with different people, and also invite them to be silent sometimes. One place, one forest, one hike… has so much to teach. It often let me think… why do I need to always see new places, if you can find so many new experiences in the same natural space close to you? 

Sacred “Garden” trees of Norway and Sweden

When I was doing research about trees in Norway I found this interesting paper by Douglas Fore Holmes about “sacred trees of Norway and Sweden: a friliftsliv quest” and was of course immediately intrigued. His abstract was very promising:

What began as a curiosity about the traditions and folklore related to trees planted in the center of many farms in Norway, “Tuntre“, and Sweden, “Vårdträd“, led me to a recognition of a tradition that can still be observed in the cultural landscape today. The tradition can be traced as far back as the Viking period, and directly linked to the mythology of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. I have been studying these traditions as they relate to the field of environmental education as an example of mythopoetic stories and folklore that influence moral and ethical regard for nature.

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As I am not a native speaker, and the author is, it does not make sense to rephrase him, so I copy pasted some interesting paragraphs and comment at it:

A special tradition that is shared by many Scandinavians is the planting or the knowing of a special tree in Swedish called a „Vårdträd‟, and in Norwegian a „Tuntre‟; a sacred tree planted in the center of the yard on a family farm that reflects an intimacy with place. The caring for the tree demonstrates respect for ancestors‟ spirits that were/are believed to reside in the tree, and is a moral reminder of caring for the farm or place where one lives. One Norwegian told me that the „tuntre‟ provided a direct connection with the nature spirits that lived underground at his farm.

According to this paper, not many Scandinavians are aware. However, during my stays in Norway, my friend shared stories he heard from farmers who are visited by the “underground people”. I can imagine that in such a forested country where there are places you do not meet anyone but shadows you start to believe in spirits.

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A view from a window was very mesmerizing. We stayed in a cabin in a very remote forest in Norway, which was also called “troll forest” 

Even until the late 19th century, these trees are so holy that no one dares to break or cut so much as a leaf; and to injure or damage them results in misfortune and illness. A long held belief-system tells us that earth spirits and guardian spirits resided in these trees.

For me it is so interesting to hear similar stories in Thailand, like for example about banana tree spirits and the red fanta offerings to tree spirits, and Japan with its mischievous tree trolls , while these cultures were so far from Scandinavia. It seems that many cultures share some roots 😉

The World Tree

The original sources of the „tuntre‟ or „vårdträd‟, appear to have been the holy groves where pagans worshiped to the Norse gods. Saplings from the groves were transplanted to the center of the village or the farm and grew into „boträd‟ on the grave of the original farmer.

This practice can also be connected with Yggdrasil, the ash tree in the old Norwegian mythology. In one of my previous posts I wrote about it: Norwegian Easter: time for ash and crime

Lonely deciduous trees

Deciduous trees are generally planted as the „tuntre‟ or „vårdträd‟, possibly to reflect the cycles of the seasons and of life and death and the return of life in the spring. Long-lived deciduous trees like oak, ash, linden, maple, and elm are common varieties used, while birch and mountain ash replace the more southerly varieties as one gains elevation or latitude.

Actually, next month my Norwegian friend and I will visit Hokkaido, the deep north of Japan, and I am also reading about the phenomenon of lonely trees along the famous Patchwork Road, and how full buses of Japanese tourists stop to take photographs of these lonely trees, often in the middle of the trees. And they are also populars and oaks. Next month I will for sure write about these lonely trees and why they can feel so sacred, for Japanese, for Norwegians, or even for an urbanized Belgian as me.

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Sneak peak of an instagram post next month for my account @wereldwoude-verhalen (only in Dutch/Flemish). 

Environmental education and knowledge

Lastly, the author of this paper , the author wanted to answer questions like:

  • How does the mythology and folklore of a culture influence their perception of place?
  • How does ecological knowledge of a landscape compare with „kjennskap‟, or what is sacred in a landscape?

Kjennskap refers to the “the more intimate ways of knowing that require time, experience, and generational wisdom – „kjennskap‟, that different way of knowing compared with factual knowledge – „kunnskap‟.” He describes the wood carver’s way of knowing. I imagine my friend who is now spending time in pottery and how it will take her years of training and practice to make a bowl. Also in Japan, they really admire craftsmen, and sometimes I wished I had more time to dedicate myself, discipline myself, to become a master in a craft like woodcarving or woodblock printing. It have a lot of admiration too for this kind of knowledge, more than for academic or so called scientific knowledge.

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Knowing your home through its Trees

In this paper, the author also refers to the importance of knowing your home. He believes if people attach more to the environmental knowledge about home, and the knowledge of plants that ripen during different seasons providing a steady source of food, or the location of secret water, or where the wind brings cooling in very hot summers, … that we can be more resilient for the societal and environmental changes. In Japan, I visit and study the country side, and how the depopulation also leads to loss of local/tacit knowledge. Newcomers with post-materials values try to unearth this tacit knowledge, but first they have to gain the trust of the elderly who stayed behind.

As scientists we can propose solutions, but through my own experience in transdisciplinary research -where academic and non-academic people co-design research and co-produce knowledge and solutions- I value a lot the knowledge that locals have about their “home”. I can also agree with the author that being aware for sacred or guardian trees can connect people to the knowledge and signatures written in the nature, and can inspire them to take care of them and the environmental surroundings.

Therefore I like to share a Norwegian poem by Tarjei Vesaas.  

 

What is Home?

Talk of what Home is – snow and fir forest is Home.

From the first moment they are ours. 

Before anyone has told us that it is snow and fir forests.

They have a place in us, and since then they are there,

always, always. Come home. Go in there bending branches –

Go on till you know what it means to belong.

As an environmental educator I think about to design a semester project to students to identify a guardian or holy tree in their home, and dig in the history behind it. We can learn so much about our homes through the history of the nearby trees.

Listen to the stories of the Trees