Forest Bathing

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Forest bathing got its start in Japan. Getty Images: Yasuhide Fumoto

A walk in the woods is nice.  But forest bathing…doesn't that sound even better?  It started in Japan and is finding its way to spas around the world. 

So what's the difference?   Forest bathing involves a greater level of mindfulness.  Instead of crashing through the woods, you quielyt walk and explore, with your mind deliberately intent on – and all senses keenly open to – the sounds, scents, and colors of the forest, according to SpaFinder, which identified forest bathing as one of the hot spa trends of 2015..

The term was created by the Japanese government in 1982, and comes from the Japanese phrase shinrin-yoku, which literally means “taking in the forest atmosphere.”    Studies in Japan indicate that forest bathing can significantly lower blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels and sympathetic nerve activity compared with city walks, while also alleviating stress and depression.

With forest bathing and expert-led forest therapy called shinrin-ryoho, mindfulness meets nature.  "The goal is to 'bathe' every physical cell and your entire psyche in the forest’s essence," says SpaFinder.   "No power hiking needed here; you just wander slowly, breathe deeply and mindfully, and stop and experience whatever catches your soul – whether drinking in the fragrance of that little wildflower, or really feeling the texture of that birch bark."

In Japan, 25% of the population partakes in forest bathing, and millions visit the 55+ official Forest Therapy Trails annually.  An additional 50 such sites are planned for the next 10 years. Visitors to Japanese Forest Therapy Trails even report that they’re asked to have their blood pressure and other biometrics taken pre- and post-“bathing,” in the quest for ever-more data.  Forest bathing is  increasingly common in places like Korea (where it’s called salim yok), Taiwan and Finland.

Examples of Forest Bathing in the U.S.

  • Blackberry Farm, a 30-year-old resort gem in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, just opened Wellhouse, a comprehensive spa/wellness center, with a specific focus on Japanese forest bathing. Its new “Deep Healing Woods” activities (from inforest yoga and meditation to endurance hikes) all end at an platform deep in the woods, and the spa uses a rich harvest of forest-found, seasonal flowers and herbs, etc.
  •  Woodloch Lodge in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, has added a Forest Bathing program, with walks led by a master herbalist teaching guests the shinrin-roku way: mindful contemplation, deep-breathing and foraging for edible plants/remedies.
  • Stowe Mountain Lodge, a ski-and-wellness resort in Vermont, has added a “Wei to Wellness” package, starring a “Mindful Snowshoe Tour” based on Japanese forest-bathing principles.
  • In forest-dense Canada, the luxury wilderness resort Trout Point Lodge in Nova Scotia has made forest bathing a centerpiece.

Stressed-out city-dwellers need forest healing the most. In the UK, Center Parcs has a collection of five, very popular “forest villages” with menus of water, fitness and spa activities spread out across 400 woodland acres. 

"We don’t necessarily use the term ‘forest bathing’ yet, but it’s a great way to describe the experience guests can enjoy being together and getting closer to nature, " says Don Camilleri, director of Hospitality and Leisure Concepts and former development director of Center Parcs UK.  

"The spa pools are surrounded by forest, there’s a menu of guided forest walks, and working with Austria’s Schletterer Consult they’ve created innovative Thermal Suites that infuse oxygen and forest-extracted essential oils, salts and minerals into the air so people can 'forest bathe' even when it rains."

"It’s no surprise that densely urban places like Japan and Korea were first to rush to forest bathing, but as the world undergoes the most intense urbanization in history, we’re all in a sense 'turning Japanese.'" says SpaFinder.   Fifty-four percent of us now live in urban areas, and that number will rise to 66 percent by 2050.

And while more people travel to forests in search of health and rejuvenation, experts will find creative ways to bring more green corridors to where more people now live: the city.