I was supposed to be listening to the cicadas and the sound of a flowing creek when a Mitsubishi van rumbled across a small steel bridge just downstream. It was probably depositing campers at a nearby tent village, where kids were running around with their fishing poles and pink bed pillows. This was nature, Japan style. I was in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, a 75-minute train ride northwest of Tokyo, with half a dozen other hikers out for a dose of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. The Japanese go crazy for this practice, which is standard preventive medicine here. It essentially involves hanging out in the woods. It’s not about wilderness; it’s about the nature-civilization hybrid the Japanese have cultivated for thousands of years. You stroll a little, maybe write a haiku, crack open a spicebush twig and inhale its woodsy, sassy scent.
“People come out from the city and literally shower in the greenery,” our guide Kunio explained. “This way they are able to become relaxed.” To help us along, Kunio—a volunteer ranger—had us standing still on a hillside, facing the creek, with our arms at our sides. I glanced around. We looked like earthlings transfixed by the light of the beamship. Or extras in a magical-kingdom movie. Kunio could have been one of the seven dwarves. Elfin, with noticeably large ears, he told us to breathe in for a count of seven, hold for five, release. “Concentrate on your belly,” he said.
We needed this. Most of us…
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