Stepping off the boardwalk trail to Hot Spring Cove, I stretch to wrap my arms around one side of a soaring red cedar. Its trunk is gnarled and ropey under my hands, and I inhale its warm, resinous fragrance. The path is carved from the primordial rainforest; green light filtering through the canopy of moss-hung trees overhead. Surrounded by the old-growth of Maquinna Marine Provincial Park in Clayoquot Sound, an enchanting boat ride from Tofino, my partner, Robert, and I are immersing ourselves in the latest health and wellness trend: forest bathing.
When I first heard about forest bathing, I admit I immediately thought of my best friend’s mother-in-law, who used to greet each summer season with a nude frolic in the secluded woods behind her home. Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on your feelings toward public nudity—forest bathing does not require disrobing or even taking a bath. Robert and I are fully dressed as we use all our senses to slowly and mindfully experience the nature around us.
A Japanese practice (shinrin-yoku) that started as a national health program in the 1980s, forest bathing is having a moment around the globe, with promises that range from reducing blood pressure to lowering stress to improving concentration and memory to lifting depression. One study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, found that nature and forest bathing “offers humans an authentic way of healing and health prevention for the mind, body and spirit.” This may seem a simple fix for any hyper-stressed urbanites yearning to be more relaxed and mindful, but it’s an authentic balm for the ills and constant demands of the digital age.
“The good news is that even a small amount of time in nature can have an impact on our health,” writes Dr. Quin Li in his book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You FInd Health and Happiness, The Japanese Art and Science of Shinrin-Yoku. “A two-hour forest bath will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment and de-stress and relax you. When you connect to nature through all five of your senses, you begin to draw on the vast array of benefits the natural world can provide.”
Let’s be clear: this is not a simple walk through the woods. As someone who regularly undertakes quick jaunts through the park to hit those 10,000 steps on my Fitbit, I begin to understand that this is not about the walk; it’s about slowing down and being mindful. You could say it’s about the trees and not the forest. (That’s how you end up hugging a cedar.)
Li, an associate professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and president of the Society for Forest Medicine in Japan, is considered one of the world’s leading experts on forest bathing. He has conducted numerous studies himself, and collected a huge mass of data from international studies, to understand the impact of forest-bathing on various aspects of human health. His book, Forest Bathing, looks to share the healing power of trees and invites readers to leave everyday stress behind and lose oneself in the beauty of one’s surroundings—no nudity required.
Another Japanese concept Li shares is yūgen, which describes a feeling that is hard to put into words but that gives us a profound sense of the beauty and mystery of the universe. With its dramatic seascapes and towering trees, Tofino has always inspired a deep sense of yūgen for me; feeling particularly run down, Robert and I head there for some deep nature therapy.
We’re using the new Tofino Resort and Marina as our base camp. Located right in the heart of town, it sits on the waters of Tofino Inlet, offering intriguing views of the big trees of Meares Island and the quirky float-house community at Strawberry Island, including the old North Vancouver ferry that a local whale researcher has grounded and converted into his home.
That tidbit of info is shared by Captain Ike, as we head out on a foggy Saturday morning on the resort’s six-hour tour to Hot Springs Cove. Enroute, he points out the area at the centre of the Clayoquot protests in the early 1990s. Known as the War in the Woods, the logging protests drew international attention.
“It’s a good thing they did,” Ike says. “Or else there would be no trees left for anyone to enjoy.”
After our tranquil two-kilometre walk from the Maquinna Marine Park dock, we emerge from the cool shade of the forest to blue skies peeking through the fog. Clear, steamy water cascades down the rocks to form deep, narrow pools near the rugged shoreline. For those lucky enough to have access, Li says that hot-spring therapy is considered a natural extension of forest therapy (I guess some disrobing and bathing can be part of the process— thankfully, there is now a small changing hut at what was formerly a secret hippie hangout).
The hot, silky water is intensely soothing, and our walk back to the boat is languid and relaxed. It’s the ideal state of mind.
“This is not exercise or hiking or jogging,” Li says. “It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our sense of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch.”
We get an intense taste of the forest later that evening at Wolf in the Fog. Our Cedar Sours are made with a cedar rye (created by soaking the purified offcuts from a local furniture maker in rye). The cocktail is earthy and spicy and evokes a sense memory of our earlier hike.
According to Li, the fragrance of cedarwood relaxes the nerves and calms the spirit. Between the day immersed in nature and our woodsey cocktail, it’s safe to say we have achieved peak relaxation.
It’s tempting to credit our blissed-out state to a particular magic of place. But according to Li, you can forest-bathe anywhere there are trees; in hot weather or cold; in rain, sunshine or snow. There are a number of ways to integrate Japanese forest-bathing into any lifestyle, from visiting the local park to filling your home with indoor plants.
“The sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air – these things give us a sense of comfort,” Li says. “Being in nature can restore our mood, give us back our energy, vitality, refresh and rejuvenate us.”
So, what are you waiting for?