Every August, it's the same story. I forget it's August, because it's just a month, like any other. Until, that is, I start to see the blurry photos of celebrities drinking negronis in Italy: a reminder that August is the official month for rich people to relax in balmy climes. Preferably on a yacht, at a very shiny table with rounded corners, grazing on an endless supply of sushi rolls made by a private chef who can't believe she went to culinary school for this.
Illustration: Simon Letch.
It's easy to feel resentful of Jennifer Aniston summering in Portofino and Mariah Carey in Tuscany and Paul McCartney off the Amalfi Coast. Anyone who can confidently use "summer" as a verb can stop reading now, because I have a proposal for the rest of us to enjoy some R&R that doesn't involve hopping on a plane or even constantly reapplying sunscreen. It's called forest bathing, and it's the latest happiness cure to come out of Japan.
Forest bathing (shinrin-yoku in Japanese) is exactly what it sounds like: spending time in nature with an eye to easing stress and rejuvenating the spirit. Dr Qing Li, the author of Forest Bathing, which came out in May, is called by his publisher "the world's foremost expert in forest medicine". To back up that claim: he's chairman of the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, and a professor at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo. Li has written that as little as two hours in nature is enough to induce relaxation, and it doesn't even need to be done in a forest. "Look for a place where there are trees," Li advises, "and off you go!"
Li says the key to tapping into the power of trees is to use all five senses. "This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging," he writes. Instead, he implores the forest bather to listen to the birds and the rustling of the trees; look at the different shades of green and the filtered sunlight; smell the forest's fragrance; taste the freshness of the air; and hug a tree.
In Japan there are now 48 designated Forest Therapy bases. Tokyo's largest hospital is soon to offer forest therapy. The practice, which spread first to South Korea, is taking off worldwide. The Association of Nature and Forest Therapy is a North American professional group which has certified more than 300 "forest therapy guides", among them doctors, nurses and therapists.
The science on what, exactly, forest bathing does to the body and the mind is still not settled. Some small studies have indicated a lowering of cortisol, the stress hormone, after time spent in nature. It's hypothesised that phytoncides – chemicals emitted from trees – have something to do with this outcome. But a recent South Korean study found no effects on blood pressure and an Australian review called for more robust trials.
Still, it seems safe to say that spending time among trees, with or without a guide, is unlikely to do any harm. Or maybe make that time spent in nature of any kind: a recent UK study found that people who live near coasts are happier and healthier, which might explain why water views tack an 116 per cent premium onto US property prices, and why we're willing to pay 10 to 20 per cent more for a hotel room with a view. It's what Wallace J. Nichols, an American marine biologist, calls in his book of the same name our "blue mind", a rare moment of solitude contemplating the expanse of open sea.
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