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Soak in some forest therapy in Japan

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Sharon Sim on 24 Feb 2019

The Straits Times

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Forest bathing in Japan's Ashizu Valley Trail Therapy Road and soaking in a hot spring in Tamatsukuri Onsen are therapy for the body and soul

 

My field of vision was a narrow strip of the tree canopy, a lacework of leaves and branches against the waning blue of the sky.

 

Lying cocooned in a cloth hammock with a slender opening between the cloth lips to gaze out of, my view sways gently and I expect to feel impatient, or at least motion-sickness.

 

But instead, like a baby in a sarong cradle - I'm lulled into a state of calm and with it, heightened awareness.

 

Of the sturdy pine trunks to which my hammock is anchored. Of the breeze which moves my hammock slightly and rustles the leaves overhead.

 

Barely two hours before, it was with a healthy dose of scepticism and a harried mind that I stepped into the forest to begin my first experience with forest bathing in the Ashizu Valley Trail Therapy Road in Chizu Town, Tottori Prefecture, in West Japan's San'in region.

 

It is about a three-hour drive from Hiroshima and 2 1/2 hours from Osaka.

 

I first read about forest therapy in articles popping up increasingly in the last few years on mainstream publications and websites, with many listing it as the latest must-do wellness trend.

 

Resort spas in Britain, the United States, Cambodia and Malaysia offer the activity, and in Singapore, local guides who are certified lead the wellness therapy here.

 

Forest bathing focuses on attuning all your senses to take in or "bathe" in the forest's atmosphere.

 

It derives from the phrase shinrin-yoku (shinrin is "forest" in Japanese and yoku is "bath") coined by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries but has ancient roots in Shinto and Buddhist teachings on the balance of man with nature.

 

Certified guides lead participants through a series of stations with guided activities like deep breathing exercises or even group sharing.

 

I was keen to try it out in Japan with its 63 designated forest therapy bases and roads, especially after I learnt about the numerous studies backing its benefits.

 

Researchers list lowered blood pressure and anxiety, pain alleviation, and a strengthened immune function among many other health gains.

 

It is spring and a late afternoon in Ashizu Valley when I meet my guide, Ms Yuko Okagashi, to start our two-hour session, shortened from the regular four hours or more, to accommodate my packed schedule.

 

After a short health questionnaire done on a tablet, my results on the health assessment software show my imbalances, such as having a low threshold for forbearance and focus.

 

With time and my shortcomings bearing down, I head into the forest, sure that the experience would leave no more of an impression than a walk in the park.

 

Ms Yuko, an apple-cheeked 59-year-old, leads me down leaf-strewn trails into a world of moss-covered rocks and willowy trees slanting out of the mountainside.

 

Across a ravine, the slope is a sea of golden foliage and we pause to marvel at a waterfall gushing stark white down it.

 

I am encouraged to take notice of the forest's features from many different angles like peering at a moss' tiny tendrils and running my fingers over its velvety surface.

 

There are towering old cedars that dwarf me and Yuko points out a 300-year-old cypress whose roots have wrapped entirely around a boulder over time.

 

A key to the gains that spending time in the forest holds is found in the air.

 

Researchers in a 2009 study by Tokyo's Nippon Medical School found that exposure to phytoncides (volatile compounds which plants emit) led to a decrease in stress hormones in test subjects, as well as significantly higher activity and numbers of natural killer cells - white blood cells which target viruses and cancerous tumours.

 

The forest in Ashizu Valley, says Ms Yuko, has one of the highest concentrations of alpha-pinene and limonene - the two phytoncides which imbue the most health-giving benefits - among Japan's forest therapy trails and I consciously try to inhale deeply as we walk.

 

While going through each station: from deep breathing in a cliffside clearing; to listening through a bamboo pole to the drip-drip of water in an echo-y underground chamber and getting goosebumps, I found the tension ebbing from my shoulders.

 

Not all were memorable, but I enjoyed the magical moment wrapped in the hammock when my overactive mind with its constant stream of thoughts was given a rest.

 

I learnt to focus on the slit of green trees in my view, to listen to the leaves rustling and just be.

 

Besides a rekindled sense of wonder, the entire experience left a lingering sense of tranquillity for days after and now, whenever my disquiet mind needs some silence, I transport myself to that moment in the hammock to centre my mind.

 

ONSEN THERAPY

 

For another therapy that involves baths, but requires me to actually dip in water this time, I travel to Tamatsukuri Onsen, a hot spring town renowned for its water's beautifying properties.

 

Here, the Toji culture of bathing in mineral-rich hot spring water for curative purposes.

 

This age-old custom, known in other parts of the world as balneotherapy, was traditionally a medical treatment where the sick would stay at hot spring inns from a few days to a week and follow a prescribed sequence of baths and bathing therapies to treat or prevent an illness.

 

There are a range of hot spring inns or ryokans to suit different budgets. My stay at Hoshino Resorts Kai Izumo, a boutique hot spring ryokan, is a sumptuous cap to this wellness trip.

 

All the spacious rooms have their own private outdoor baths and there is a picturesque rotenburo (open-air bath) for all guests to use, but it is to the wood-scented communal indoor bath with its mirrored surface that is the very picture of tranquillity to which I am drawn.

 

Guests are provided with a Toji culture handbook suggesting the sequence of bath rituals, how to stretch and how best to enjoy an onsen bath.

 

The resort even has a signature massage technique in its Sleep Massage (for relaxation and deeper sleep) and Muscle Massage (for releasing aching knots) that guests could book to enhance their hot spring therapy experience.

 

As I walk, bath-warmed, along the dimmed hallways to the dining hall for my kaiseki dinner, I think about what the two wellness therapies have in common: Both allowed me to break away from the built-up pressures of urban structure and recalibrate in restorative nature.

 

That night, while gasping in delight over course after visually-stimulating course of dinner, I remember that my forest bathing guide, Ms Yuko, told me that on certain early mornings, visitors to the Ashizu Valley Trail forest could actually see the phytoncide - which is most concentrated in the wee hours - as a purple mist hanging low on the ground.

 

That is enough reason for a return trip, to marvel at the phenomenon and soak in both the health-giving goodness of the forest as well as hot spring therapy.

 

• The writer's trip was hosted by the San'in Tourism Organisation and Hoshino Resorts

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

 

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