In this posting, I take the concept of authentic travel in a different direction, exploring a type of activity you can do while travelling which will put you in touch with your own health and well-being. In the first part, I discuss the Japanese notion of forest-bathing and why it’s terrific for you. In the second part, I discuss three different ways you can have a forest-bathing experience while in a city away from home.
What is Forest-bathing and Why Do it?
Forest-bathing, or shinrinyoku in Japanese, involves time spent walking in the forest and purposefully breathing in the aromatic compounds (anti-microbial wood oils) released by the trees in it. Not only is this a pleasant and relaxing activity -it is also good for you.
A study of Japanese men and women tested whether people would see health improvements after time spent walking in the forest, as compared with a relatively tree-free city environment. Results found decreases in stress hormones for the forest-bathers. They also found higher activity among clusters of cells believed to play a role in killing tumours and releasing anti-cancer proteins. This was enough for the researchers to tentatively suggest a role for forest-bathing in cancer prevention. And the health effects of just an hour or two in the forest setting were found to last up to one month. To see this full study (Li, 2010), click here .
When travelling, especially in a major metropolitan or historic centre, you might find yourself overwhelmed with all of the new sights and experiences you are having. As a North American who loves the historic centres of Europe, usually about ten days in to any trip I often find myself overwhelmed by all the heritage and art, and craving a day of respite. If you’re like me, a trip to the forest can be a wonderful palate-cleanser (so to speak)- a way to recharge that can be health-boosting as well. Finally, in the spirit of authentic travel, your trip to the forest will bring you in contact with an experience enjoyed by many locals.
How to Forest-bathe in a New City
I suggest three ways to do this, starting with the ideal -true forest immersion as well as two potentially more accessible alternatives if you’re without a car and transit access to a forest is difficult.
1. Full-on Forest Immersion
This approach is the ideal, and involves spending time in a preserved forest area with little or no human intervention – i.e., a non-manicured space where nature is pretty much left to do its thing, aside from trail maintenance and perhaps washroom facilities. These spaces are often found at the outskirts of cities, although sometimes you can find them within the limits of newer/ smaller cities. In Vancouver, places like Pacific Spirit Park within the University Endowment Lands are a special example of this type of non-manicured facility that is even accessible by transit (for more info, click here). In other areas, though, accessing these spaces is more likely to require a car or at least special tour bus. Knowing that you might want this type of experience on your trip, it pays to either research beforehand or ensure you have good Wi Fi access while on holiday so that you can look up access options.
2. Expansive 19th / Early 20th Century Parks- Landscaped, but Lots of Trees
New York’s Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calbert Vaux, in the mid-19th C is a great place for forest-bathing. I love how diverse this park is- allowing you to combine restorative greenspace exposure with more formal gardens, trails, and even proximity to the Museum mile. Several subway stops will put you within easy reach of this park. According to one researcher, Olmstead was an early advocate of forest bathing for its medicinal and restorative benefits, even though he didn’t use that term. To read more, click here here.
In Europe, you might want to access this type of space at Paris’s Bois de Boulogne, designed in the mid-1800s as a royal hunting ground (for more info click here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bois_de_Boulogne ). And in Rome, be sure to check out Villa Ada- located in an appealing northern suburb, and accessible through a 30-40 minute walk or by tram. This park is wonderfully restorative- particularly in the areas filled with umbrella pines, like the one in this photo shown below. I spent over a month in Rome several years ago, and this was a favourite hang-out spot, where I felt quite safe.
For a map and very short description about Villa Ada, click here. For a greater range of photos of the park, click here. And as a bonus, if you time things right, you might be able to attend the Roma Incontra Il Mondo music festival or the Roma Folk Fest (happening July 30, 2016).
3. Tree-lined streets and small parks.
Often streets can provide us with an amazing sense of respite if they are shaded with trees. In urban planning circles, efforts to strengthen the presence of trees in cities has led to many initiatives making streets greener and cooler in summer. London is quite green as world cities go, and has recently launched initiatives to make its streets and parks even more tree-friendly. For a map of green streets in London, click here . Closer to home, in Portland, Oregon there have also been significant efforts to inventory, preserve and enhance urban trees. To see where the greenest spots downtown are, click here for a map. Sometimes the best way to find a green street is to travel to a residential part of the city and walk towards the greenery. You might discover many other delightful things while having an abbreviated forest bathing experience.
So forest bathing is a great activity for your health generally, and to press the reset button on your psyche when you are travelling in a more urban environment. Even the largest cities can provide you with opportunities to get this benefit, either by travelling to their outskirts, searching for a large, mid 19th/ early 20th century-designed park, or gravitating towards tree-lined streets. And who knows – the experience might bring you some ideas you’ll want to suggest to your city or town council when you get home for greening the streets where you live.