Shinrin-Yoku: A Walk In the Woods, Japanese Style

The Japanese know a thing or two about stress. But in pite its culture of long working hours and its famously crowded cities (more than 128 million people live in the country, which is the roughly the size of California), living harmoniously with nature is a quintessentially Japan trait.

Respect for and interest in nature is so ingrained that in 1982, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries coined the term shinrin-yoku, also known as forest bathing, and officially recognized the benefits of spending time in green spaces.

Since then, 48 trails have been designated for the practice, and the government has funded $4 million in research to understand its health impact, according to Outside. In the US, shinrin-yoku is in its infancy, but the Japanese see it as a way to treat a host of health issues, including depression, insomnia, and high blood pressure.

Shinrin-yoku, Step by Step

Don’t be mistaken: shinrin-yoku is no ordinary walk in the woods. It’s a series of guided exercises designed to help participants deeply engage each of their senses with nature. But it’s not about improving your knowledge of flora and fauna, and it’s not about exercise, either, says Amos Clifford, a California-based shinrin-yoku guide and author of A Little Handbook of Shinrin-yoku: "I only cover about a quarter mile in my walks, and they can last up to two hours."

During shinrin-yoku sessions, instead of pointing out various species of plants and wildlife, Clifford offers participants what he calls invitations. "Each one is a sensory immersion opportunity. I typically suggest eight invitations during an outing," says the guide, who likes to begin by having participants pick up a stone and communicate their worries to it. "Each person shares a worry and adds their worry stone to a pile created by the group. I reassure them that their problems will be waiting for them when we return—if they want them!"

Clifford says this exercise helps the most tightly wound let go of reality for a little while, and allows them to get the most out of the forest bath, since "It’s difficult to experience the transformative powers of shinrin-yoku if you can’t get your mind off work."

To help the group take in natural sources of pleasure around them, he slowly engages the senses of taste, sight, touch, smell, and hearing. For example, the group might focus on touch by noticing movement. "We don’t just take note of the moving air but we watch it in the grass, leaves, shadows, and wildlife," he explains. "Standing quietly with eyes closed, I provide prompts to help them consider how their skin feels. Is there dampness? Is it breezy? Does the air feel pleasurable or not? Sharing thoughts and impressions with others is another way to sharpen awareness, which can also be a rich experience."

Next, the group might interact with a plant that Clifford or one of his guides knows to be safe. "We hold it. We feel the texture and notice the weight and odor of it. Depending on the walk, we might gather ingredients and make a tea from them. The senses truly come alive when you focus on each sense individually."

Clifford admits to being surprised by the wide range of experiences people record from shinrin-yoku walks. "Nature communicates in many ways: images, memories, or the lyrics to a meaningful song may come up Sometimes people receive important insights during their time outside."

Interacting with trees can be especially profound, according to the guide: “I call the tree activities the gateways to grief because crying is so common," Clifford explains. "There’s a sense that the tree has somehow answered the person or given him a deep sense of acknowledgement that was missing in his life."

There’s Science in Those Trees

Shinrin yoku isn’t just an invigorating emotional experience; it’s thought to provide physical benefits, too. Substances called phytoncides—essential oils emitted by plants—may strengthen the human immune system, according to Tokyo-based researcher Qing Li, MD, PhD. These "phytoncides are a major component of the scents that we ordinarily smell when we are among trees," says Clifford. "For many people they are particularly noticeable among conifers such as pine, fir, cedar, and yew. Japanese researchers have likened the effects of phytoncides to those of aromatherapy, hypothesizing that they work in the same way."

Li, who is currently the president of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, says breathing air rich in the phytoncides alpha-pinene and limonene, which protect trees from rot and insects, triggers white blood cells in our immune system to send self-destruct messages to tumors and virus-infected cells. In one study, Li and his colleagues found that subjects who visited forests had increases in anti-cancer proteins circulating in their bodies—and these effects lasted for more than 30 days following their visits.

Other experiments have used blood tests, hormone analyses, and new brain-imaging technology to show that forest bathing improves blood pressure and heart rate numbers, and leads to greater creativity.

Shinrin–yoku for City Dwellers

While Japan may be particularly well suited to forest bathing since 67 percent of the country is covered with trees, you can connect with nature practically anywhere. Clifford says there are opportunities in your own backyard or a city park. He has even held mini Shirin-yoku retreats near California freeways. And you don’t have to spend a long time on a shinrin-yoku excursion: "Not everyone can afford to give two hours to nature, but even 20 minutes of Shinrin-yoku can be beneficial."

Having a deeper level of awareness can transport you to a more relaxed state, Clifford says. "Leave the distractions of technology behind. Go untethered into the woods and enjoy the joy. We are so accustomed to multi-tasking that this can be easier said than done. But realizing the pleasures that exist around you is a very sweet thing to have in life."

For information on forest bathing or to learn more about participating in a woods walk, visit:

Amos Clifford reviewed this article.


Amos Clifford, founder and author, A Little Handbook of Shinrin-yoku. Phone interview. 5 June 2014.  

Qing Li, MD, PhD. "Introduction to Japanese Society of Forest Medicine." The Society of Forest Medicine Within the Japanese Society for Hygiene. 6 June 2014.  

Healthy Parks People Central. "Forest Bathing." Accessed 6 June 2014. 

Michelle Werts. "Taking Baths in the Forest." Loose Leaf: The Official Blog of American Forests. Posted 22 February 2013.

Florence Williams. "Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning." Outside. November 8, 2012. 

Li Q, Kawada T. "Effect of Forest Environments on Human Natural Killer (NK) Activity." Int J Immunopathol Pharmacol. 2011 Jan-Mar; 24 (1 Suppl):39S-44S.

Li Q, Kobayashi M, Inagaki H, Hirata Y, Li YJ, Hirata K, Shimizu T, Suzuki H, Katsumata M, Wakayama Y, Kawada T, Ohira T, Matsui N, Kagawa T. "A Day Trip to a Forest Park Increases Human Natural Killer Activity and the Expression of Anti-Cancer Proteins in Male Subjects." J Biol Regul Homeost Agents. 2010 Apr-Jun; 24(2):157-65.