I can’t exactly pinpoint when this need to be in nature started for me. Possibly on my first (and second) trip to Zion National Park in Utah, or that magical day in Halstatt, Austria, or my first toboggan ride in the Swiss Alps, maybe exploring red rock in Sedona with my parents, or maybe it was in trying to keep up with the old Korean ladies on the coastal trails in Busan. Likely a combination of them all. But at some point over the past few years I developed this need to occasionally get out of the city and be in nature.
For me, this desire doesn’t come without hesitations. I hate insects, snakes, monkeys, and basically any other non-plant living thing that you’ll find in nature. Even butterflies. Despite the uneasy feeling being in nature brings, or perhaps slightly because of it, I’ve had this drive to go out and explore nature more. Why? Like many “feelings” that are hard to put into words, the Japanese language has a word for it: 森林浴 Shinrin–Yoku, or literally, forest bath. Luckily, there is no shortage of places to get your forest bath on in Japan. Here are some of my favorites so far:
A small peak just north of Kyoto, Mt. Kurama gave me my first real peak at Japan’s nature scene (and my first snake sighting!). This fairly unknown-to-tourists hiking trail is engulfed in greenery and the very well-maintained trails are lined with the traditional orange bridges and gates found dotting Japan’s mount sides. As this was my first real hiking experience in Japan it was also my introduction to the polite konnichiwa exchange shared by hikers in Japan. If you go up and over the mountain the trail lands you at the beautiful Kifune Shrine with a peaceful walk back to the train station along Kibune River.
Nikko National Park can be found in Tochigi Prefecture, about 2 – 3 hours north of Tokyo depending on your wallet size. I was blown away by Nikko’s beauty, not only in the national park but in the town itself. The area is most famous for Toshogu Shrine, an elaborately decorated shrine dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. If I recall correctly I don’t think I paid to enter the shrine because I was too taken with the beauty of the trails. The area is also famous for its relaxing mountain onsen (I enjoyed a free foot bath with a boys elementary school class).
I’ve been to Mt. Takao twice with plans to go a third time with some students in November to see the fall foliage, or koyo in Japanese. Mt. Takao is probably the easiest way to forest bathe near Tokyo. It’s not stunning in the way some of these other places are but if you’re looking for a quick Tokyo day trip forest bath this is a great option. On a clear non-summer day the peak also has excellent views of Mt. Fuji and there are a number of good soba restaurants near the mountain.
Magome – Tsumago – Nakasendo Trail
This past June I stayed at an old port town called Magome. Magome was one of several port towns which lined the once popular Edo Era route from Tokyo to Kyoto known as the Nakasendo trail. Much of the trail is now highway but the section between two traditional port towns, Magome and Tsumago, has been particularly well maintained and makes for a beautiful 8 kilometer forest bath. The multi prefecture hike takes you from Gifu to Nagano prefecture and boasts beautiful waterfalls, a traditional teahouse, and delicious soba restaurants. Oh, and if you’re lucky like me, terrifying families of macaque monkeys that jump out onto the trail right in front of you.
This weekend I ventured into post-typhoon no. 19 damaged Nagano to explore Kamikochi National Park. I came across Kamikochi while googling best places to see fall foliage in Japan and it didn’t disappoint. Kamikochi is referred to as the most popular mountain resort in Japan; however, less than a handful of my Japanese students had heard of it! While it was a bit of a hassle to get there, typhoon aside, the scenery was well-worth the trouble. I also managed to make a quick trip up to Mt. Norikura before heading home. The bus stop at Mt. Norikura is the highest altitude bus stop in Japan, at 2,702 m (8,864 ft) and the views at the highest peak, Kengamine, were spectacular.
Some additional forest baths on my ever-growing to do list include (just for Japan, suggestions welcome!):
Fuji Five Lakes – I’ve especially got my eye on Lake Yamanaka
Mt. Nokogiri in Chiba (yes, Chiba!) scheduled for next weekend!
Mt. Aso in Kumamoto, Kyushu
Yakushima, an island south of Kyushu (see picture below, that’s why)
Mt. Oyama, Kanagawa – planning for peak koyo in late November/early December
I think part of the reason I love getting out into nature is that forest bathing seems to have a built in reset button. Whether or not you decide to unplug completely, with the exception of some aching hips, mosquito bites and blisters, you’ll probably come back feeling mentally recharged.
I think being in nature also serves as a sometimes necessary reminder that the world is bigger than your world, that no matter how many ugly things are happening there are beautiful places to be seen, and that there are stars in the sky! (it’s easy to forget that last bit living in Tokyo). So next chance you get, I encourage you to go take a bath in the woods!