Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Forest Bathing

Discovering Health and Happiness Through the Japanese Practice of Shinrin Yoku (A Start Here Guide)

A Start Here Guide for Beginners

Dr. Cyndi Gilbert, ND

St. Martin's Essentials





Forest bathing, the literal translation of the Japanese term ??? shinrin-yoku, is described as the process of “making contact with and taking in the atmosphere of the forest.” The term was coined in the early 1980s when the Forestry Agency of Japan proposed the promotion of forest bathing trips as part of a healthy lifestyle. Meetings were held to develop and nurture forest bathing as a relaxation and stress management activity. Forest bathing was promoted for its calm, quiet environment and clean, fresh air in contrast with the dense, loud urban conditions endured by many Japanese living in Tokyo and other cities.

Even though people in Japan and elsewhere around the world have been hanging out in forests since the dawn of time, the official naming and development of infrastructure around forest bathing is relatively new. Economic interests may have had a role in the development of forest bathing practice as we know it today. Forests and forestry have long been a part of the Japanese economy. Silviculture, or forestry, was a well-developed industry, growing stands of aromatic trees for both architectural and ceremonial uses. Leading up to the 1980s, there was interest within the forestry industry to support native Japanese tree stocks over imported wood products from neighboring Asian countries. Combined with academic research investigating the chemical compounds in conifer trees that give forests their characteristic smell, forest bathing made sense economically, culturally, and scientifically.

In 2004, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries met with several academic groups and nonprofit agencies to begin to build up the research evidence on the health benefits of forest bathing. The concept of forest bathing brought together forestry and park departments with health and welfare departments, once separated as distinct and unrelated research and policy areas. This team, the Forest Therapy Study Group, conducted multiple research studies over the next three years, looking at everything from stress hormones and blood pressure to immune function and cognition. Out of that research, several academic institutes and nonprofit organizations were founded and became critical voices in advancing forest bathing practice.

The Society of Forest Medicine originated in 2007, born out of the Japanese Society for Hygiene, and is now housed with Nippon Medical School in Tokyo. Its mission is to advance forest bathing research and the therapeutic effects of forests on human health. It also works with businesses, governments, and universities to encourage the practice of forest bathing for health promotion.

Another organization, the Forest Therapy Society in Japan, also emerged from the research team in 2004. The Forest Therapy Society was tasked primarily with developing projects and public awareness to put forest bathing research into use. The society created Forest Therapy Bases to serve as centers for forest bathing practice and research and worked to raise public awareness of the health benefits of forest bathing. There are currently sixty-two Forest Therapy Bases in Japan, with plans to increase that number to one hundred bases. The Forest Therapy Society certifies and registers officially recognized Forest Therapy Bases and Therapy Roads. The organization also trains forest therapists or guides to lead people through a forest bathing experience. Their goal is to welcome and introduce as many people as possible to forest bathing. The majority of sites are barrier free and wheelchair accessible. Partnerships with local businesses support research and improve access. Corporations often subsidize forest bathing trips and may even include basic health checks.

Cultural and spiritual traditions also support the public promotion of shinrin-yoku and forest therapy. The traditions of gardening and meditation in Japan mirror the mindfulness part of the shinrin-yoku experience and may contribute to public acceptance and understanding of the practice. Japanese culture has long been characterized by a strong appreciation for nature and a harmonious attitude of connection to the natural world. Often depicted in modern times through the aesthetics of traditional Japanese gardens and a particular fondness for taking selfies in front of cherry blossoms, the cultural representations of nature connection can be equally found in the patterns on kimono fabrics or in the art of re-creating forest landscapes through the careful cultivation of miniaturized potted trees (bonsai) or the creation of tray landscapes (bonkei). Traditionally, nature themes have also been prevalent in Japanese architecture, art, cooking, and literature. Both Buddhism and Shintoism, the two most prominent religions in Japan, consider humans to be essentially identical to other parts of nature. Mountains, forests, plants, and animals are all embodied with spirits similar to those of humans. Although forest bathing was a relatively new practice, it was easily adopted likely because it was firmly embedded within the long-standing and widespread Japanese cultural identification with nature.


While Japanese researchers were studying the health effects of shinrin-yoku, journalist and author Richard Louv was coming up with a new term of his own that would help set the stage for the introduction of forest bathing in North America. A columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune, Louv documented a vanishing relationship with nature in his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Louv argued that after tens of thousands of years of playing primarily outside in nature, children were increasingly living their lives indoors, and they were suffering because of it. He summarized and synthesized the research into the physical and mental health implications of staying inside.

The idea of nature deficit disorder hit a nerve. People like my patients started to think about how much free playtime they’d had outside compared with that of their own children and grandchildren. They thought about all the time they had spent outdoors themselves as children. They remembered feeling free to run around in the woods or on the open grassy areas. Like me, they had positive memories of playing outside, climbing trees, running with friends, picking up sticks, and walking far distances to school. They thought about their children and grandchildren and came to the realization that they were likely missing out on something without even knowing it. They became conscious of the fact that their children and grandchildren spent most of their time indoors, many of them in front of a screen. Their children couldn’t identify and name a willow or a pine or even a maple tree. They were engaged mostly in structured, organized activities, mostly inside a building. In contrast, these adults, only one or two generations past, could fondly recall all the unstructured time they had spent wandering and getting dirty. They wondered about the effects of missing out on time spent in nature.

Others shared these concerns from professional perspectives. Urban and suburban planners had been talking about how to integrate trees into urban and suburban designs in new ways. The older, wealthier neighborhoods often still had a lot of streets lined with tall, mature trees, but the newer developments and less economically rich areas lacked the canopies of shade commonly found in other neighborhoods. City planners turned their attention to initiating and developing new forms of green spaces throughout cities, with active tree planting to replace aging canopies in the creation of greener, more livable communities for everyone. They also stressed the importance of nature-based solutions and renaturing cities to address nascent challenges of urban planning as more and more people moved into urban centers.

Environmentalists, conservationists, and naturalists had been raising alarm bells since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, but there was an increased urgency in the 1990s and early 2000s. Concerns about the destruction of natural habitats and forests had existed for many decades, but public understanding and awareness and interest in these issues had greatly increased as the evidence of climate change accumulated. Scientific researchers had confirmed the cautions against the overharvesting of forests and the overuse of concrete in our cities. There was scientific consensus about the devastating impacts of climate change and air pollution.

Copyright © 2019 by Cyndi Gilbert