Tag Archives: Forest Therapy

Forests, Mountains and other therapists

On the last day of August, I reflect what the forests, my ‘soft’ therapists, and the mountains, my ‘raw’ therapists taught me this summer in Japan.

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Middle of June – Mt Fuji from below

Ten weeks ago I took this picture of Mt Fuji. I have not climbed it. I would be a fool, according to a Japanese saying, if I would want to climb Mt Fuji twice :D. However, my visitor from Norway had climbed and descended Mt Fuji in 4,5 hours. That guy climbed some weeks later also Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. I do not plan to beat his Mt Fuji record. You can add an 1 before that 4 ;). And that is ok. I should not compare myself with him or any other mountaineer. Or have the same dreams, targets etc. You’ve different kind of mountaineers and nature lovers. And that is ok. Climbing mountains is about knowing your limits, about conquering yourself, and we are all different, and that is ok.

Late July – a vision board

Summer is the time that Japanese, especially older people, greet the summits of the higher mountains of Japan. The lower mountains are “too hot”. So that is what I planned. I climbed two of the three Holy Mountains (三霊山 Sanreizan): Hakusan (also know as the White Mountain) alone and Tateyama (known as “standing mountain”) with two friends, and hope to add Mt Fuji.  This is the vision board I made:

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Early August – Sirens or therapists?

I thought a lot about mountains this summer. I saw a Netflix documentary about mountains, telling how they are like sirens, luring people far away from human controlled and human made environments, with their beauty, putting some of them in risk and danger. I can understand, and I recognised especially myself in the images of the mountaineers cursing, crying and failing. I really got to know myself through these therapists – or yeah, sirens.  I cried. I cursed in three languages. I felt “op mijn bakkes” at height of 2700m. That is a very Flemish expression to say you tripled.

And I laughed. And I found stillness.

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Middle of August – Mountain therapy

In June I had also headaches. I went to an Eastern Medicine doctor, and it was clear I had tension headaches. Maybe because I  do so much …  It was a good therapy session. I felt this summer, I encountered many different therapists who let me realise and point out where I am stuck in my personal development. Mountains, as therapists, let me realise sometimes what and when I can “drop” or cannot. I know I am very bad in saying no, or am interested in too many things, plan so much, dream so much, have so many ideas, but when you climb a mountain, you have to focus on the now. It’s different than forest therapy, which is more about relaxing, sensuality, intimacy, even pleasure.  Forests are the nice therapists.

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Mountains are raw. These therapists let you think about your body, your limits, your breath, your pace, and your fears. You do not think anymore about your Google calendar, to-do-lists or your appearance.

You think: concentrate. Up to the next step.

Or when you see a beautiful landscape… wow.

Or … oh my god, why I am doing this?

I curse when I had to descend. Most accidents happen when you descend Japanese mountains: they are quite steep and you need to focus on each step.

Hakusan’s lesson: breath through the nose, or slow down

I decided to climb Hakusan alone, and was disconnected for 36 hours. You start at 1250m and reach the height of 2702m and pass different landscapes which could be used for movies like sound of music or lord of the rings (including Mordor). It was very hot, but as an aforementioned mountaineer advised me two months earlier I try to breath only through my noise. Otherwise if you cannot control your breath you slow down your pace. This control of breath helped me to climb 1500m under 33degrees in less than 6 hours in a steady pace.

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Hakusan is one of Japan’s three holy mountains. A Japanese lady I met in the mountain lodge where I stayed last night (with hundreds other Japanese, and I seemed to be the only foreigner) told me she had been 5 times to this sacred space and shared how important it was to her: I saw her paying respects to the mountain spirits. We became friends for some hours.

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At the peak she pointed to the other side of the peak; to the crater and said she has never been there, because it looks scary. Five minutes later she and I decided to explore that place … nicknamed “hell”. We had to descend the crater, toured along lakes another crater and returned over a alpine field with snow patches. It was also her first time to cross a snowfield and we saw wild life (the cute ones; not the ones that can kill you). She pointed me to some famous flowers.

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While the sun went down and colored the landscape in a warm palette of colors, I wrote some postcards and drunk beer (no showers in the mountain cabin, but they got a beer bar and a post office; the Japanese mountaineers know their priorities 😉).

The next days I walked along a sea of clouds and mountain peaks and realized that 1500m elevation gain was more than I thought the day before. At the trailhead while waiting 2 hours for the bus stop, the old Japanese park ranger gave me free instant coffee. Actually I got many small presents of Japanese people, like salt tablets for example. And I could practice my basic Japanese sentences. Which is mostly “the flowers are beautiful.” “Terribly warm; isn’t it?” and “I am from Belgium. We are famous for beer and chocolate…. Now I do not have some. Sorry.” And 300 times “konnichiwa!” to all the people I passed, which made them smile.

Tateyama’s class: while descending, first put your heel, then toes

After taking a bus, a train, stay overnight in Toyoma, then take again an early train to a station where I met up with two friends, a ropeway and a bus to Japan’s highest bus station (at height of 2400m), it was time for the second holy mountain. That was a steep ascend. While Hakusan required 1200 meter elevation gain, this was “only 600m”, but there I did not think about breathing and heat. I was almost bouldering up, and thought one thing “up, up, up”. I was not relaxing, as I realised I had to descend at some point. I was also more tired; some Japanese people called me brave, tough to do this right after Hakusan. I thought I was stupid 😉 But yes, I reached Tateyama’s highest peak: 3015m.

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At some point,  when we continued the path over the mountain ridge toward Tsurugi (no, I did not climb that one for the Japanese readers among you), the path was very small, we were hiking for 5-6 hours, and one of the the guys had to hold my hand, because I was very tired and also a bit scared. I felt back I was in Pakistani Himalaya, crossing a steep landslide, while dressed in the most conservative clothes, and also holding the hands of my driver, although it was not ‘appropriate’. I am grateful for all people that once hold my hand. It helps. Thanks.

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After the end of the third day hiking (or first day Tateyama), in front of the mountain cabin, my muscles relaxed so much I tripped over my feet. Quite an elegant entrance. I got tears and laughed at the same time, saying to the guys: “Wow, I could have tripped in 1001 worse places today.”.

The guys left me to climb Tsurugi, which is one of Japan’s most dangerous mountains. Spoiler: they survived. The pictures are amazing, but no, I am a different kind of mountaineer. Tsurigi is a mountain I will watch and never touch. In the next morning, around 05.30 am I was gazing in the mountain cabin at this beauty:

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The next day I joined a 70 year old Japanese doctor and his friend in the descend. We went very slowly and they gave me good hints about descending safely (they did mountaineering for many years). It did not feel “steep”, until I saw at the end of the trip, from distance, that it was really steep. I ordered beer and thanked the mountain spirits. This photograph is the summary of the trip: we ascended via the right, walked over the mountain ridge, and I descended somewhere in the left of that ridge.

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Forest therapy 

Then it was more time for the more softer “therapist”. Also ten weeks ago, after my friend climbed Mt Fuji and I was eating in the village at its foot some pastries, we visited the suicide forest close to Mt Fuji (What did a visit to Japan’s suicide forest teach me about forest therapy? and the next day I co-organised this visit to one of the 62 certified forest therapy bases in Japan, about which I wrote more in this blogs: Forest Therapy Taking Root and Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath

The weekend after I consulted the mountains, I got  paid to give my first forest and nature therapy session ever. This is the nicest paid weekend job I ever did :). I wrote more about this in a blog called Wood weaving & forest bathing in Nagano, Japan.

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Late August- The lesson of Mt Fuji – learn to say no and rest

So yes, in the end of August, I thought and told friends and family, it was time to climb Mt Fuji, the last of the three holy mountains.

However, two days before, I decide to cancel, because another friend had to cancel and it gave me the opportunity to reconsider and reflect. Some days earlier I got back tension headaches, because I had still so much tasks at my sleeve – and only 8 days left before I would leave Japan. After Tateyama that let me curse a lot, I felt it was almost a bit too much to go for more “hard therapy”. I had also a bad feeling about climbing Mt Fuji. In addition, the two friends were not fully prepared and real beginners, and I felt also pressure to feel responsible for their safety and comfort. Some friends I hoped to climb with,  could not join this time.

After that friend cancelled, the secretary of my supervisor told me that the day before a Russian young woman of my age died because of falling rocks. Too many people on Mt Fuji. My sensei said that landslides caused by (over)tourism was actually getting a bigger problem. I remembered also what my Norwegian friend said: you’ve two kind of famous mountains; the first you climb because they are beautiful; the second kinds are ugly and you just climb them for the prestige. He said Mt Fuji was clearly the second one, and maybe not even worth it. He climbed it off-season, and saw almost nobody, but he would not do it in crowded area. It would annoy him too much. 

After talking with some friends,  I realised I wanted to climb it for the wrong intention, namely showing off “my physical fitness and mental strength” to others.   And I thought… would it not be better to say goodbye to Japan on the summit of Mt Fuji, with some friends I made, and when I have more time and less responsibilities. Last, and most important, to be very honest, I also connected Mt Fuji with my bestie from Norway, and it was difficult to let Mt Fuji go, because it was also about letting go a piece of him. The whole decision was very mental difficult as I confronted myself with some things I still try to hold on, including my pride.

I also talked with two of my close friends, one in Europe and my yoga teacher in Japan, and they also said I should not be ashamed to choose to rest. You could say that Mt Fuji’s therapy nudged me to learn to say no. By actually moving the plan to climb Mt Fuji to my next and last summer in Japan, I was being honest and think less about what other people might think. I feel that was the lesson that Mt Fuji taught me this summer. It is not time yet to climb her. And that is ok. Come back, Fuji told me, when your intentions are right, because I and you deserve this respect. So, that is how I ended my Japanese summer. Not with a big explosion or hero adventure. But with actually time to say proper goodbye to some people I would not see for a long time. That is ok.

We do not always need to grow or show our strength, but also to rest. It was ok that this summer, I only saw Mt Fuji from below and restored from the Hokkaido travel in its shadows. I am happy. 

Wood weaving & forest bathing in Nagano, Japan

Last weekend, I co-organised a trilingual forest retreat weekend in Nagano, Japan I helped to organize. Yes, trilingual 😃. At some point I was mixing Japanese, Spanish and English 😅. On the program we had wood weaving, yoga, core tuning, hot bath (onsen) and the forest therapy session – which I guided. We stayed in a 200 year old wooden house. Japanese style in the countryside. It has an irori, a sunk fire pit in the wooden floor. In this blog I will share some impressions about wood weaving and forest bathing.

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This forest weekend retreat was hosted by the yoga studio Mind Body Space in Nagoya.

Wood weaving

Hinoki is one of the most elegant types of wood in Japan. This tree is a type of cypress that is considered sacred and only grows in this part of the world. Hinoki has been used since ancient times in Japan as a construction material to build temples and shrines and is considered as one of the 5 “forbidden woods” in the time of samurai. You could lose your hand or head if you cut down this wood. In other blogs I wrote (indirectly) about hinoki wood and the sustainable silviculture practices introduced by samurai in the 17th century:

It is not only the durability that makes this wood amazing. Yes, some constructions made from this wood are more than thousand years old, like the Horyuji temple, the oldest wooden structure in the world. What I like the most about hinoki, is the scent. Even after some years you can smell the scent. Another application is to make strips of it, and weave it according to some patterns into hats, baskets and other useful stuff. Last Saturday afternoon, somewhere in Tsumago (Nagano), with the help of patient professionals, we made coasters. It was quite therapeutic, to use your hands, and focus on the patterns for 1,5 hour.

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Forest bathing in a gorge

On Sunday morning it was my task to wake up everyone at 05.30 to do a silent walk next to the river. I asked them to leave their phones and cameras (but I took mine to take some photographs in the end, although I also felt difficulty in the beginning to not take my camera and look for “good pictures” instead of looking for the nature in myself).

First we sat in a circle at the entrance of a path, and I explained them some differences between Japanese forest bathing and western school of forest therapy. I told them that for me forest bathing is not the same as meditation, but more about finding pleasure. We will open up our senses to feel sensuality. I told them to listen -like elephants- and observe – as owls- for five minutes, and then to share one thing they  noticed and how it made them feel inside. After this exercise I asked them to be silent from the moment we will enter the forest. It felt like we entered one of the magical forests depicted in the Japanese popular anime movies from Miyazaki, like “My Neighbour Totoro”.

Some people expressed they felt very nostalgic to a connection they had with nature when they were a child. Someone admired the resilience of trees, even in a landslide we passed, and that she wants to be more like this. Another participant felt the suffer of a tree when she touched its trunk. Forest therapy is not always about getting “good feelings”. It is about restoring the relationship between nature outside us and the nature in ourselves. And then we see we have been bad to trees, rivers and nature. For me, forest bathing is also a way of environmental activism.

At 07.00am we were back in the 200 year old house where we stayed, to share corn tea from a Mexican friend who stayed behind to put away the futons and prepare the meal. After a breakfast, I hold a second session where the participants were invited to go back into nature and create art, like a collage of things they found, a haiku or a song. Our youngest participant made a haiku about how the moon and the stars became friends.

It was a beautiful weekend. I am grateful.

This is the poem I wrote during my own forest therapy:

When the sun invites the moon,

I hear the drums of the forest.

The colours start to dance to it’s swan song .

Shades hug trees and rocks like old lovers,

too busy during the day. Only time for an embrace,

when the sun invites the moon.

The colours fade away. My heart beat stops.

The moon arrives. A new journey begins.

I only breathe when I listen.

Interested to participate?

I will leave soon Japan for three months, for a training in Colorado and data collection and other projects in Belgium and Sweden.

However, in late autumn, when the trees in Kyoto color deep red, I will return and plan more moments of forest therapy. If you are in Central-Japan, and like to hang out with international company (trees and humans), send me a message of contact me through Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/wereldwoude_verhalen/.

Ha en god dag! 

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

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? 

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?