Forest bathing shouldn’t, despite its name, actually involve getting wet. But while the weather in Japan, where the practice originated, is more reliably warm, the same can’t be said for Britain. At least not in early spring. ‘I’ve never done this in the rain before’, says David Read, my guide. A crash course in forest bathing follows. So is it a gimmick, a fancy name for taking a walk in the woods? Or is Shinrin-Yoku, as it’s known in Japanese, worthy of all the fuss?
Forest bathing is certainly taking off in Britain. The Japanese hobby of heading to the woods and soaking up the sounds is the latest incarnation of the craze to get back to basics and return to nature. Blackwood Forest in Hampshire, an hour or so from London and just out of earshot of the M3, is the place to go to try it out if you don’t fancy a 12-hour flight to Japan. Forest rangers here, who have been to the Alps to train in Shinrin-Yoku, lead groups twice a week into the woods. The rules are clear: ditch your phone and go for a slow wander through the trees. I’m sceptical. After all, is there anything relaxing about being told to switch off by a stranger?
Once you’ve got over the awkwardness of walking around the woods with someone you’ve just met, the benefits are clear and it is more relaxing than it might sound. Rangers are trained in picking up the noises of nature, which for a suburban dweller like me brings the forest to life and there is something very indulgent about simply taking the time to just, well, enjoy being in the woods. This is different from taking a walk. Instead, forest bathing is about taking things slowly. And, yes, that means staring at trees.
‘You are going to be walking aimlessly and slowly,’ says Dr Qing Li, who is now president of the society for forest medicine in Japan. He’s right. You won’t travel far on a forest bathing trip, but the point is that you don’t need to: the focus is on tuning into the stuff you pass by without noticing when you’re walking the dog or out for a jog.
In Japan, forest bathing is already a familiar hobby made popular by Tokyo residents desperate for some escape from the suffocating metropolis. Since it took off in the 1980s, Shinrin-yoku has been linked with a number of health benefits: fans claim it reduces stress, boosts concentration and lowers blood pressure. Some say the benefits go even further, suggesting that forest bathing is a form of preventative medicine that can reduce the risk of having a heart attack or a stroke. The Woodland Trust has suggested that it should be added to a list of activities recommended by doctors to help patients’ wellbeing.
I can’t vouch for the health benefits but it is obvious that this is a relaxing way to while away an hour or so. It’s perhaps no surprise then that forest bathing has a growing flock of celebrity fans. The Duchess of Cambridge even modelled her Chelsea flower show garden last year around the concept. Forest Holidays, which runs Blackwood forest and another site in the Forest of Dean where you can also go forest bathing, says the number of bookings for forest bathing this year has more than doubled in the last twelve months.
Perhaps then this is another Japanese export which Brits are right to be borrowing. Japan, of course, is famed for its technology. Its cities are at the forefront of the latest innovations, from bullet trains faster than HS2 (and already built) to self-flushing toilets. But if this willingness to embrace technology is something Brits can adopt, there is also wisdom in the Japanese willingness to simply enjoy nature.
Nearly ten per cent of Britain is woodland, so there is certainly plenty of room to bathe in the forest – a bonus in this new socially distant era. After my trip to Hampshire, I’m a convert. But perhaps the big difficulty is being as disciplined as its Japanese practitioners: and finding time out from the daily grind to head to the woods.
A Silver Birch two bed lodge in Blackwood Forest costs from from £495 for four nights.