What is 'forest bathing' – and how does it help?

These five places are perfect for practising the Japanese art of being at one with the woods.

By Sunny Fitzgerald
Published 21 Oct 2019, 16:16 BST
This small forest in Shaftesbury, England, is perfect for a meditative stroll—especially during bluebell season.
This small forest in Shaftesbury, England, is perfect for a meditative stroll—especially during bluebell season.
Photograph by Alex Treadway, Nat Geo Image Collection

Whether you call it a fitness trend or a mindfulness practice (or a bit of both), what exactly is forest bathing? The term emerged in Japan in the 1980s as a physiological and psychological exercise called shinrin-yoku (“forest bathing” or “taking in the forest atmosphere”). The purpose was twofold: to offer an eco-antidote to tech-boom burnout and to inspire residents to reconnect with and protect the country’s forests.

The Japanese quickly embraced this form of ecotherapy. In the 1990s, researchers began studying the physiological benefits of forest bathing, providing the science to support what we innately know: time spent immersed in nature is good for us. While Japan is credited with the term shinrin-yoku, the concept at the heart of the practice is not new. Many cultures have long recognised the importance of the natural world to human health.

Forest bathing is not just for the wilderness-lover; the practice can be as simple as walking in any natural environment and consciously connecting with what’s around you. For a more structured experience, you can join trained guides for a meditative two- to three-hour ecotherapy excursion. Here are five places to try forest bathing.

Adirondack Park, in New York, is larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon combined and provides a rich forest bathing experience.
Photograph by Michael Melford, Nat Geo Image Collection

Forest bathers will find ample room to roam in the Adirondack Park. Stretching across more than six million acres of New York State and home to more than a hundred peaks and some 2,000 miles of hiking trails, it’s the largest protected area in the contiguous United States. Native evergreens are both aromatic and release a high concentration of phytoncides—airborne essential oils that provide a natural immunity boost. The health benefits of this phytoncide “shower” can last for weeks. Evergreen needles are rich in antioxidants and vitamin C and some—such as spruce, eastern hemlock, balsam, and pine—can be steeped and sipped as a tea.

Certified forest therapy guides Helene Gibbens and Suzanne Weirich of Adirondack Riverwalking offer guided forest bathing year-round in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, and the Wild Centre, an award-winning natural science museum of the Adirondacks. Local tip: seeing the fall foliage and snowshoeing in winter are peak experiences.

Costa Rica

With more than 50 percent of the country covered by forest, Costa Rica is a forest bathing paradise. Nearly six percent of the world’s biodiversity is found here, so whether you wander through a misty cloud forest in Monteverde, hike across hanging bridges suspended amidst the canopy near Arenal Volcano, stroll a lowland rainforest trail along the Sarapiqui River, or explore a protected forest reserve just outside San Jose city center, you’ll have countless opportunities to observe wildlife and activate your senses. 

Guided forest bathing walks are available through Sentir Natural and led by local naturalist Manuela Siegfried, the first Association of Nature and Forest Therapy–certified guide in Costa Rica.

New Zealand

Stand in the presence of living legends in the North Island’s Waipoua Forest, where the oldest and largest kauri trees in the world live. Sacred to Māori people, kauri are considered “protectors of the forest.” The transition from daylight to night is accompanied by Māori songs and storytelling. Footprints Waipoua organises walks among the kauri trees including the Twilight Encounter, led by Māori guides.

Local Samburu guides lead travelers through a forest in northern Kenya.

Photograph by Kitich Forest Camp

You may not immediately associate this East African nation with forest bathing. But in the Matthews Range, in the Laikipia district of the Rift Valley, ancient forests are home to endemic plants, cedars, wild orchids, more than 350 bird species, elephants, and one of the only populations of de Brazza monkeys in the country—all ingredients for a sensory immersion excursion. Guided forest walks from Kitich Forest Camp are led by local Samburu trackers with intimate knowledge of the sounds, scents, and sights of the forest. 

A deep connection to the`aina (land) is central to Hawaiian culture. Forests here are traditionally revered as life-giving for the natural materials they provide and the spiritual needs they satisfy. It’s easy to see how the abundance of aromatic flowers, medicinal plants such as māmaki, and 175 types of native trees—the majority of which are found only in this remote island chain—inspire travellers and locals to stop and smell the tuberoses. In Hawaii, opportunities to bathe in nature are boundless. Pick a spot under a banyan tree and enjoy the salty sea breeze. Pause by a plumeria plant and inhale the sweet scent. Or join a guided walk with Forest Bathing Hawai`i, led by local Phyllis Look, the first guide in the state to be certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.

Sunny Fitzgerald is a freelance writer, sustainable travel specialist, and a regular contributor to Kama`aina Magazine. You can follow her on Instagram.

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