Tag Archives: Forest Therapy

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).

forest consultation
(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

Vitamin Ginkgo for your November Depression

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Some weeks ago I suffered a November depression or Autumn Flu, which happens to many people who live in countries with four seasons, like the Netherlands, Belgium and Japan, when days become darker. Also other friends told me that November is the month they feel down and need to take more vitamins. Last year’s November felt also depressive, when I recall my diary notes. But the year before in Thailand I was fine, partly because there are no seasons like in Japan. And in the end of October and early November I felt I was struggling again and in a bit of a self-destructive mood.

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I feel fine when I walk outside in sun, or am with close friends with who I feel comfortable, but mostly I felt annoyed, sad and even frustrated. I was not creative. The best advise is to take distance of social media channels, because seeing the filtered “happy stories of others” make you wonder why you were not invited, or sleeping without curtains, doing walks in sunlight and nature and taking extra vitamins. I believe nature gave also a good medicine to deal with it: the colorful autumn forest. So, in the last weeks, every day I was free, I was exploring the outdoor of Nagano or Gifu, the prefectures close to Nagoya. One day I went to a Reishoji to greet a 80 year old female ginkgo tree. Most of the pictures of this blog are taken there.

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I really love the ginkgo trees. Watching them freezes time and I really feel in the presence when I observe a ginkgo. Nowadays, their golden fan-shaped leafs make even dull days in Nagoya beautiful. The  Ginkgo biloba, commonly known as ginkgo is quite a loner, because it is the only living species in its family tree (did you see what I did there?). All the others are extinct.

They are perfect urban trees, because they can tolerate pollution and confined soil spaces. They come from China, but they are also widely planted in Japan, because of Buddhism. It is also the official tree of Tokyo and six ginkgo trees were among the few living things that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

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What gives the yellow color? Leaves are, I read in the book “Around the world in 80 trees“, chemical factories that conjure sugars out of carbon dioxide and water, using sunlight, with the help of chlorophyll, which is bright green. When the trees slow down in autumn, they recycle everything that could be useful the next year. As chlorophyll is broken down and reabsorbed, the leaves’ green colouring disappears and reveal the yellow xantophylls or orangery carotenes which always have been there to mop up leftovers. The climate in Japan makes the colors more bright than in Europe.

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Lastly, the gingko has many medical benefits. On the internet you can read about many benefits, which focus mostly on blood circulation and brain issues. In China, the gingko -or Yinxing – is studied for a long time. It represents the sacred concept of yin and yang, as there are male and female trees. In addition, it is also a symbol of longevity and survival. Some survival trees from the atom bombs were gingkoes. Most gingkoes grow to an imposing height and width during their lifetime, often living for several millennia. At the website of Classical Chinese Medicine, I read that “many Daoist temple courtyards feature ancient gingko trees that are thousands of years old, and one particular tree is said to be about 10.000 years old. As a mysterious, long-living tree with roots in great antiquity the gingko was an ideal candidate for the practice of shamanic tree worship, and Daoist shamans would engrave their magical spells and seals  on old growth gingko wood in order to communicate with the spirit world.”

What do you know about gingkoes?

 

 

DIY Forest Therapy 森林浴

Living in Nagoya has some benefits. There are a lot of shrine parks, and Japan is also for 70 percent forest. Even I live in the middle of one of the biggest cities in Japan, I had the pleasure to enjoy the healing aromas of the Hinoki and Sugi, famous Japanese trees used for timber construction. Especially the aroma of the trees of Gifu, the prefecture in the north of Nagoya, can let you sleep like a rose.

I am not sure what came first. Getting interested for Japanese forests or getting interested in forest therapy. During a short holiday in Belgium last August, my parents showed me Flemish books on forestry and I decided to spend more time in leisurely walks in the forests around my house, to relax. I called it as joke “DIY forest therapy”.

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Forest Therapy-  is a research-based framework for supporting healing and wellness through immersion in forests and other natural environments. Forest Therapy is inspired by the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku, which translates to “forest bathing.” Studies have demonstrated a wide array of health benefits, especially in the cardiovascular and immune systems, and for stabilizing and improving mood and cognition, resulting in for example stress relief, improved sleep, even weight loss on long term.

Shinrin Yoku is becoming more and more popular in North-West Europe (but still a very small niche market), partly because it resonates with old cultural practices from the Old Religion that was celebrated by the Celts and other indigenous people before Christianity removed or replaced the cultural practices by Christian ones. The christmas tree is actually based on a symbol of the old religion. There are sources that said Maria in Christianity was so popular, in especially our countries, because we could recognise the Goddess figure in her. In this Old Religion, also trees and other nature elements had a very special place and role. For example, people would wear wooden pegs (later broches) at their clothes, because they believed that the tree spirit would accompany and protect them. There were also the figures of druids who gathered fruits, barks and wood from different trees. Shintoism and the Old Religion of the Celts are not that different from each other.

Since I am 10 years old,  I study north and western old religions and mythologies, and also know a bit about forestry. Currently I also do a Phd in environmental studies and know a lot about ecology. I also visited different spiritual guides across the world and talked often about the role of nature, nature spirits and ecospirituality. Since I am here I try to read as much as possible about shintoism and especially the sacred trees.

I like to explore more the connections between shintoism and shinrin-yoku with my own almost lost indigenous wisdom by organising trips to forests, shrine parks, during special moments in the Celtic Year, and engage in conversations about (almost forgotten) indigenous wisdom of our cultures, but also find time to enjoy the healing aroma of the trees and forest.

I planned a first DIY Forest Therapy event in a shrine forest nearby Nagoya, on November 4th, after Samhain. I invited Japanese and not-Japanese friends. Samhain, is the Celtic New Year and a festival of the Dead (very similar to Obon, a Japanese festival celebrated in the middle of August). Samhain isn’t necessarily a creepy, morbid holiday obsessed with death, as some may conclude. Instead, it reaches for themes deeper than that, tying in with Nature’s rhythms. In many places, Samhain coincides with the end of the growing season. Vegetation dies back with killing frosts, and therefore, literally, death is in the air. This contributes to the ancient notion that at Samhain, the veil is thin between the world of the living and the realm of the Dead and this facilitates contact and communication.

We will celebrate the end of Summer by doing a meditative walk in a forst park. In early November, the autumn leaves can be gorgeous, and I think these trees will color red. I also asked everyone to bring autumn-related food and drinks. One friend told me she will make pumpkin pie. I suggested the following:

 

  • Harvest food such as pumpkins, squash, root vegetables, chestnuts
  • sweet potato latte, pumpkin soup, chestnut cake etc.  
  • Nuts and berries, dark breads
  • apple juice, apples, apple cake, pomegranate juice, pomegranate
  • herbal teas: sage, catnip, mugwort

 

Pomegranate refers to Persephone, the queen of the Ancient Greek Underworld. Apples are also symbols of this festival. The recommended herbal teas are very good for detoxing and purification. A Mexican friend told me that her mother used bundled sage twigs to clean her from bad spirits, when she was a child. It is all about letting it go.

The way how my ancestors celebrated Samhain is very similar to practices in shinrin yoku and forest therapy, so I think it very good for everyone who just needs more time to enjoy nature and the silence of it, and contemplate about death and rebirth.

What will you do?