No Ordinary Walk in the Forest:  A Visit to Iinan-cho, Shimane Prefecture

Ever since the Japanese government issued its novel coronavirus guidelines telling people to avoid the “Three Cs” – closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places, and close-contact settings – there has been renewed interest in hobbies and activities which can be pursued outdoors.  In search of a break from the city, I recently visited Iinan-cho, a town of under 5,000 people located in Shimane Prefecture, bordering Hiroshima prefecture.  A pamphlet about the town describes it as “a museum of living nature”, which is not an exaggeration given that over 90% of the land is covered with forests and fields.  But what caught my attention on the Iinan Tourism Association website was the “Iinan Forest Therapy” programme.  I had just watched an fascinating Youtube video by a doctor who describes the benefits of forests for human immune systems (Medcram.com).  Could the “Iinan Forest Therapy” be related to that?

It turned out the answer was yes.  To attract visitors to Iinan, the Iinan Tourism Association, local government offices and residents developed a unique programme called “Forest Therapy”, whereby visitors can enhance their feeling of wellness by walking in the forest.  In particular, “forest therapy” or “forest bathing” is believed to boost our “natural killer cells”, a type of immune system cell which plays a role in fighting against cancer and some viruses. The Forest Therapy Society has been promoting forest therapy across Japan.  Since being certified in 2005, the Iinan Forest Therapy Program has been training Forest Therapy guides, with about thirty certified guides at present.

We had stayed over in the area the night before, and headed over to the Morinosu (Forest Nest) Hotel in the morning.  There we met Mr. Tsukamoto, our Forest Guide, and Mr. Ito from the Iinan Tourism Office.  We were first asked to fill out a short questionnaire about our general health before setting out on our walk.   Mr. Tsukamoto took us along a gentle path, stopping every so often to point out an unusual type of tree, or pick a leaf off of a plant and give it to us to taste, touch and smell.  The most peculiar one was a leaf which smelled like cotton candy!  Mr. Tsukamoto stressed that forest therapy was about experiencing the forest with all five senses, so our excursion was more of a ramble than a walk.   

About an hour into the walk, we came to the spot where five hammocks were set up between tall pine trees.  Each of us climbed into a hammock and had a blissful twenty-minute rest.  I spent the time looking up at the silhouette of the trees against the sky and listening to the birds, but my daughter said she had a deep sleep! 

After the rest, we made our way back to the hotel, smelling and tasting a few more leaves.  At the hotel, we filled in the rest of the Health Check and a survey about the experience.  Mr. Ito said that memories of the walk could also invoke feelings of peace and well-being.  The end of the experience came with a tasty obento of chesnut rice and some delicious food, which we had pre-ordered from the Iinan Tourist Association (price ¥1,100 per lunch).

There are currently 65 certified Forest Therapy sites in Japan (Forest Therapy Society website).  The Chugoku region has five other certified Forest Therapy sites (Chizu town, Tottori Prefecture; Jinsekikogen Town, Hiroshima Prefecture;  Akiota Town, Hiroshima Prefecture; Shinjo Village, Okayama Prefecture; and Tokujihori in Yamaguchi City, Yamaguchi Prefecture), but I would recommend starting with the Iinan Forest Therapy program, which was given a “two stars” certification on October 1, 2020, the second program in the country (the maximum is two stars).  The price is ¥8,000 for the guided walk, regardless of the number of walkers.  You can also walk independently.  

To book a Forest Therapy walk, please fill in the form on the Iinan Tourism Association website or contact Mr. Ito directly (tel. 0854-76-9050).  

Sources:  

More on Forest Bathing
Forest Therapy Guiding – talk with Stacy Kurokawa on the Seeking Sustainability LIVE talkshow series with GetHiroshima co-founder JJWalsh

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.