by Nigel R.
The train pulls out of Kansai airport, but already your phone is starting to come to life, invigorated from its standby by a flood of notifications, alerts and that sense of connected urgency which has been patiently waiting to spring.
The backs of wooden houses and occasional shrines appear and disappear quickly behind the now-speeding train. Japanese trains are quiet, your fellow passengers are reluctant to break the peace – their phones on silent – and the sight of face masks all along the carriage create a parade of small white and blue flags.
Today you’re headed to Osaka main station, where a quick transfer will take you onwards to Uda, a city in Nara province. From there you are to be met and taken to the exquisite Sasayuri-Ann Ozunu Villa: home for a week of workcation, where you have promised yourself you will be productive in different surroundings.
The private Sasayuri-Ann Ozunu Villa embodies the timeless aesthetic of Japan: tatamifloors, shoji paper doors, a Zen rock garden. The host at this 200-year-old villa is Matsubayashi-san, a Shugendo monk, who leads the Buddhist fire rituals at the temple nearby, and part of you hopes for an invitation to watch.
The next few days will be a chance to combine the digital demands of working from home-away-from-home, but in fresh surroundings: a chance for inspiration and invigoration. Working demands will be satisfied from a newly improvised office space. Green tea takes over from endless work-from-home capsule coffee, and already the mind starts to settle down to a gentler pace. The profoundly therapeutic shakuhachi bamboo flute is often played here, and Michelin star chefs can be arranged for a private dining indulgence at the day’s end.
But most of all you marvel at just how naughty it feels to be slipping away and regrouping in some other location to take calls on Zoom and respond to emails. And best of all, with a workcation, no-one really needs to know.
Around the villa are the rice terraces, temples and deep forest, with the peaks of the national park in the distance. It is here that the Ninja was first trained, and Matsubayashi-san organises early morning hikes to the Nunobiki waterfalls nearby.
But the great highlight of this journey is the chance to experience Shinrin Yoku, the art and practice of Japanese Forest Bathing.
To practice forest bathing is to put ourselves truly and deeply in nature: shinrin means forest, and yoku means ‘to bathe’. Bathing oneself in the truest sense of immersion: not in water, but in the sensations of the forest. And this is a practice that has a considerable history in Japan.
Walking through the forests here, you’ll find that in these trees there is a symphony of sound that is all its own. All phones, devices and other such distractions are put away. For all we know (or care), the batteries may be dead and there’s no mobile signal – and that’s good enough for today because taking photos and fumbling with a phone camera spoils the moment, creating a technological ritual to which we are too often beholden and that you have come here precisely to get away from.
There is nothing in the world as restoring as long, striding walks through lush forests of pine, juniper, and maple trees. Up hills and around trees, pathways are faintly worn, over roots and rocks, into the ground by those who’ve gone before. Otherwise these forests have been here forever. They probably always will be. Here there is no sense of the passing of time beyond the fading light of the evening, and the night.
Those who’ve gone along these paths were, like us, pilgrims. They were acting on the ancient human instinct to find a destination and make the journey to it. The journey is the whole point, after all. Royal family, imperial emperors, and devoted pilgrims have etched these routes for us.
Their story is the same as ours: we continue to trace the same routes and for the same reasons. In Japan, forest bathing means far more than walking: it means submitting to a coordinated rhythm of body and mind that touches all the senses. The impact of steady feet on the paths in sync with the ritual breathing of clean fresh air, the scents of trees and their early autumn fruits.
Breathe mindfully and intentionally to take in the scents of pine and citrus. Place your hands on the gnarly trunks that have been here for decades, covered and overgrown by moss. The birds with their endless variety of songs sung with a conviction that only they can really know: these things together, as a whole, take us away from the destructive power of our tiny bright screens, scrolling newsfeeds and endless bleeping notifications of pointless urgency. And as you walk, your thoughts become more focused, inner unhappiness gives way to balance and acceptance, new perspectives emerge from the endorphins of brisk exercise.
Shinto shrines along the way provide reminders that there is a progression in this journey. No matter how far we go, or how long since we last saw some outside remnant of noise and life, these shrines appear along the route, reminding us that our journey is a shared experience, to be followed from the past to the future.
Shintoism sees the power of the divine expressed through rocks, trees and the sun. The shrines we pass are brief reminders of the importance of these things for those who have gone before us: they serve to make us stop, examine, and take stock.
Japan has many of these trails, where pilgrims have set their feet before ours. Within reach of the Sasayuri-Ann villa are the trails of the Kumano Kodō (熊野古道). These take several days to complete, and lead to the three great shrines of the Kumano Sanzan. They can be completed in parts or from coast to coast, and stretch from Tanabe on the west coast of the Kii Hanto peninsula to Nachi Taisha on the east: a four day walk if you’re up to it.
At the end of this experience of mind and body (for what else would you call it?), you come to the faint realisation that you’ve been cured of something. Whether it’s the air, the scents, or even as scientists claim – the aromatherapy of the phytoncides. You’ve passed from the realm of the everyday – the tyranny of the computer screen and the daily grind – and have satisfied some great, ancient urge within, even if under normal circumstances we would struggle to give it a name.
Finally back at your desk now – stronger and more resilient than before.
For more on the practice of Forest Bathing, read Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Qing Li, 2018