A Walk in the Woods: Only a few hours from downtown Tokyo, forest bathers wash away the cares of urban life 御岳山,青梅, 東京
by Daniel Allen
Autumnal weather on Mount Mitake, part of the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park is, according to many Japanese, a law unto itself. While residents of Tokyo - a 90-minute train ride away - enjoy glorious sunshine, the forests around Mitake's 929 metre-summit are frequently enveloped in a dense, eerie mist, as tendrils of nebulous water vapour weave their way between the trunks of towering Japanese cedar and crimson-leaved Japanese maple.
Yet Baba Yoshihiko, a Shinto priest and long-time owner of a local mountaintop shukubo (temple guesthouse), never complains about the vagaries of the Mitake microclimate. In fact, he's more than happy to wander the mountain's serpentine hiking trails in the fog.
"Sometimes I can be out for hours here and not see a single soul," says the diminutive, spectacle-wearing 60-year-old. "It's very peaceful when the mist comes down. At times like this, a walk amongst the trees is perfect for inner reflection and connecting with nature."
Today, however, Yoshihiko has three Western tourists for company. Negotiating moss-clad steps, fast-flowing streams and heavily gnarled tree roots, he guides them slowly through the forest towards a dramatic mountain waterfall, pausing from time to time to let the group reflect on their surroundings.
Once they arrive at the fast-flowing cascade, Yoshihiko will lead the trio in takigyo, an ancient Japanese waterfall ritual designed to cleanse the mind and soul. Following a series of warm-ups, songs and chants, the intrepid (and fully naked) participants plunge themselves into the waterfall's icy waters. While it's not an experience for the faint of heart, the Shinto priest remains a passionate advocate, even in his sixtieth year.
"Being surrounded by the trees and then immersed in the water makes you come alive," says Yoshihiko, whose family have been practicing takigyo for 17 generations. "You relax, your body chemistry changes, and you see the world differently. This is the essence of shinrin-yoku."
Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is now catching on fast in the West. But it's nothing new in Japan, with roots in venerable Shinto and Buddhist practices. While the old-fashioned term "a walk in the woods" still applies in most other countries, shinrin-yoku has been making its way into the Japanese vernacular since a government agency coined the expression in the early 1980's.
"Shinrin-yoku is a bit more than just walking in the forest," explains Sahoko Ma, a yoga teacher and regular forest bather from Tokyo. "To get the full benefit, practitioners must engage with nature using all five senses."
"Some people like to be led by a shinrin-yoku guide, but it's not essential," adds Baba Yoshihiko. "Basically, go to a forest. Walk slowly, breathe and open your mind. And leave your smart phone and camera at home."
Today we spend an unhealthy amount of time isolated from nature. In 2001, a survey in the United States found that the average American spends 87 percent of his or her time indoors. In Japan, a country where terms for commuter hell (tsukin-jigoku) and death by overwork (karoshi) are in common parlance, the need for forest therapy may be even more acute.
"When I'm out here in the forest I don't think about things," says Yoshio Sato, a 41-year-old Tokyo businessman who regularly comes to Mount Mitake at weekends to practice shinrin-yoku. "Out here you can leave the stress behind."
To many it seems obvious that a walk in the woods can be good for body and mind. But a growing body of research is now backing this up with science, with studies demonstrating that shinrin-yoku can lower blood pressure, heart rates and stress hormones, and improve memory. One of the biggest benefits may come from breathing in chemicals called phytoncides. Given off by trees and plants, these have been shown to stimulate the activity of cancer-fighting white blood cells.
"The forest is the therapist," says Sahoko Ma. "You'll never look at trees the same way again after you've tried shinrin-yoku."
Therapy in Practice
With their lush forests, well-sign posted trails and funicular railways, both the sacred Mount Mitake, and the nearby Mount Takao, are great places for Tokyo visitors to make a shinrin-yoku day trip. The summit of the latter boasts stunning views over Mount Fuji when the weather gods are benign, while the Yamano Furusato-mura Forest Therapy Centre in Okutama, located close to Mount Mitake, offers guided walks and forest-based yoga, pottery and noodle-making classes.
For those looking to travel farther from Tokyo, the Nakasendo Trail is the perfect option for indulging in some multi-day shinrin-yoku. Meaning "path through the mountains", this 534-kilometre former trade route between the Japanese capital and the city of Kyoto was established during the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868). Today it offers hikers tree-lined paths, forest waterfalls and a conveniently-spaced selection of post towns, each filled with picturesque wooden architecture and welcoming ryokan (traditional Japanese inns).
"People come here to see cities," says Baba Yoshihiko. "But they forget this country is 70 percent forest. Shinrin-yoku is the perfect way to experience green Japan."
Tourist brochures promoting visits to Mount Mitake point out that the mountain is only a 90 minute train trip away from central Tokyo - "Central Tokyo" meaning Shinjuku Station and the "90 minutes" presumes a well-planned itinerary. But, from Ome Station, where you have to change trains on the way to Mitake Station, trains for Mitake / Okutama run only about once an hour.
From Tokyo Station or Shinjuku Station, take the Chuo Line to Ome Station and change there to the Ome Line. Alternatively, take the Chuo Line to Tachikawa and change there to the Ome Line.
From Ome Station, only about one train per hour goes to Mitake / Okutama.
From Mitake Station, take bus number 10 to Cable Shita (280 yen).
Walk from the Cable Shita bus stop to Takimoto Station and take the cable car. The cable car return trip fare is: adults 1,110 yen, children 560 yen. One-way trip: adults 590 yen, children 300 yen.
The cable car operates from 7.30am to 6.30pm.