Reclaiming Shinrin Yoku in the Forests of Minnesota
On the complicated experience of seeing Japanese wellness practices exoticized in the West
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Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes, though the number is actually more than 14,000. And there is no pithy nickname for the land that surrounds these lakes: thick forest that forms around small, marshy bodies of water. If you drive around the suburbs you’ll run into a number of these places, marked by old wooden signs with names obscured by cobwebs. In my mind’s eye the trees reach out across water mucked green with duckweed in the summers and the silence is broken by the sharp, oddly mechanical song of red-winged blackbirds clinging precariously to the tops of reeds.
My younger brother and I made up our own names for the trails we walked the most—the Bird Place, the Hiking Place, childishly banal names that somehow stuck. From the busy road that ran parallel to it, the Hiking Place looked like an impenetrable wall of green. Once you found your way onto the trail, there were only a few spots where the trees briefly parted, revealing traffic only a stone’s throw away. I was always amazed at how well the trees seemed to absorb the sounds around them, cradling us in its soundproofing. We came to these places to escape our home, where the ravages of a father with alcohol and opioid addictions ate away at us all. My brother always had a predilection for nature, so going for long walks became a nice excuse for why we left the house. I responded to the abuse by dissociating, a survival technique that lingers to this day. The only place I felt safe enough to inhabit my body was in the cool quiet of the forest, away from our family home.
My Japanese mother called what we did back then a form of 森林浴 (shinrin yoku), most commonly translated into English as forest bathing. The practice emphasizes being present by focusing on the smells, sounds, and feeling of being surrounded by a natural environment, as a form of relaxation. It isn’t about exercise or even completing a trail; it’s about wandering and simply being. The Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term in 1982, as a practice aimed to improve health. Since then, the practice has popped up in other countries, including the U.S., and been covered in both popular magazines and scholarly journals.
I stopped drawing attention to the things that were important to me, because I grew tired of seeing an alienating, funhouse mirror image of myself reflected back.
There is a tendency in the West to overexoticize ideas or practices that come from Japan, particularly when it comes to activities tied to wellness. Every few years a new coffee table book will appear in bookstores touting another “uniquely Japanese” idea that will somehow unlock the secret to better living—ikigai, kaizen, and even wabisabi. Words that are perceived as having come from beyond the mists of time, bearing the sublime weight of enlightenment. What always strikes me about this tendency towards cooption of Japanese words is the hypercontextualization and decontextualization that happens simultaneously: what is important is that these ideas come from Japan, but all nuance and historical context that make them Japanese are utterly stripped away. What remains is a bizarre caricature that is less about the original concept and more about marketing it as something specifically foreign.
Over the last several decades, it has become far more common to see a white person being rightly called out for cultural appropriation if they prance around in a headdress at a music festival or if they shove chopsticks into their hair for their “geisha” costume. But the discussion around appropriation often stops at the idea that appropriation is simply bad, without delving into the deeper impact that seeing yourself caricatured—or grossly misinterpreted—can have on your relationship with your own culture. This type of alienation happens with objects, like pieces of clothing taken as gaudy costume, but also happens with cultural practices around wellness and daily living. As I grew older, I learned to simply stop talking about foods beyond what people would see on a restaurant menu, stopped correcting people when they misused Japanese words or phrases for the sake of a punchline. I stopped drawing attention to the things that were important to me, because I grew tired of seeing an alienating, funhouse mirror image of myself reflected back. Cultural appropriation, the twisting of meaningful things into shallow parodies that are then taken to be genuine, can get under your skin and cause you to jerk away, repulsed by that thing parading itself in front of you.
For several years in my twenties, I stopped doing shinrin yoku for similar reasons. It simply became tiresome to try to explain what I was doing. There would so often be a look of suspicious incredulity, followed by the pointed questions: why did I need to use a fancy term when all I was doing was just going for a walk? Why does everything need to go back to culture?
But midway through the first year of the pandemic I spoke with my mother, a clinical social worker, about how heavy I felt about the way the world is. She also carries the weight of those she works with in her body, on top of the toll that prolonged isolation, death, and uncertainty has on us all. She turned to me and said, “We need to do shinrin yoku.” We headed to a beautiful park reserve along the Mississippi River, where paper birch and American elm frame the river with criss-crossing branches.
What shinrin yoku offers is a possibility for a reprieve, a sense that no matter how heavy things feel, there is a way to pause—if only momentarily—to connect your body to something other than anxiety, fear, or pain.
Unlike the Hiking Place my brother and I used to wander, this place was far from any major roads. All that I could hear around me was the high-pitched thrum of insects hidden among prairie grass and the slight rustle of leaves as a gust moved across the surface of the river and up towards the treeline overlooking its bank. My mother had moved ahead of me as I paused, surrounded by the forest on either side of the narrow path. I took a breath. And for that moment, wandering through the forest, I felt that the world was livable again. What shinrin yoku offers is a possibility for a reprieve, a sense that no matter how heavy things feel, there is a way to pause—if only momentarily—to connect your body to something other than anxiety, fear, or pain. I have returned to that forest several times throughout the course of the pandemic and each time I feel this reprieve, a slight weight lifting just long enough for me to center myself and face another day, even when many of those days bring with them a new source of stress or grief.
This visceral response, the deep-in-my-bones relief I felt in my body when I did shinrin yoku for the first time in years, pushed me beyond any discomfort or hyperawareness of others I felt so acutely in the past. I need this to keep me balanced in a world increasingly unstable and unprecedented, no matter the meaning others ascribe onto it.
But I still don’t tell people that what I do in the forest has a name. Part of this is because I know what comes next—questions about whether it comes from ancient times, whether it has something to do with Shinto. I could tell them that no, the term is a contemporary one and that, while it has some cultural link to Shinto, there’s actually quite a bit of quantitative research indicating that spending time in forest spaces lowers blood pressure, that there has been an indication that this might be caused by breathing in compounds that plants release to protect them from other organisms like bacteria or fungus. I could also tell them that for all the Orientalizing they might want to do, this is similar to practices that appear in other cultures, like friluftsliv (“free air life”) in Scandinavian countries. I could tell them that not everything from Japan needs to be viewed in a hyper-othered way, that it is ultimately just a culture like any other.
It isn’t that I don’t want people to engage in shinrin yoku or other wellness ideas that come from Japan. But I wish we could remove the Orientalist glasses that instantly hyperexoticize things. I want there to be an understanding of the history, the practicality, and the real humanity behind these types of practices. There is a way to appreciate a cultural practice without always stumbling into outdated stereotypes.
If you are drawn to shinrin yoku but feel yourself slipping into the impulse to hyperexoticize, to fixate on its foreignness to you, this is how to do shinrin yoku: find whatever natural space around you and let yourself be engulfed by what you see, what you hear, what you feel. Can you engage with the natural spaces around you without resorting to overexoticizing the place where this particular activity came from?
Don’t think of shinrin yoku as a mystical practice and don’t think of it as a uniquely foreign practice. Instead, try to situate yourself within the space of your own forests and natural spaces. And simply be.