TOKYO — Have you ever heard of forest therapy? You may recall feeling refreshed or relaxed after walking through a forest — that is the effect of so-called forest bathing. Forest therapy involves using the revitalizing effects of time spent in nature to treat physical and psychological ailments.
Professor Iwao Uehara, 45, of Tokyo University of Agriculture, in April established the Society of Forest Amenity and Human Health Promotion in Japan to promote the idea of forest therapy.
"OK. Shall we cut down this hinoki cypress tree?" Uehara's voice echoed through a hinoki forest in Kosugemura, Yamanashi Prefecture. The man-made forest had grown overly dense — it had not been thinned since the trees were planted more than 30 years ago. The trees were very thin and looked weak.
The occasion was a "Minna no Mori" (Everybody's forest) activity held on July 31. Uehara organizes the activities to give people struggling with physical and psychological ailments a chance to improve their health by caring for uncontrolled forests like this one or by simply strolling through forests.
In addition to this writer and Uehara, six other people took part in the event, among them a company employee and a university student from the Tokyo metropolitan area.
Uehara drew the blade of a saw across the tree he had pointed out, making a cut across its narrow trunk. With two members of the group lending a hand, the tree was soon enough cut down.
A small window of sunlight opened in the green canopy above us, bringing smiles to visitors' faces.
"The more we take care of the forest, the more changes we can see in it. I feel good when I see the clear transformation," said Chutoku Narushima, 66, from Tokyo.
The group moved to a different area, with broad-leaved trees like Japanese oaks, for a session of "in-forest self-counseling."
Each person found a tree they liked, and sat at the root for about 30 minutes to quietly reflect.
Last year, Uehara asked 15 people who had taken part in Minna no Mori events in the hinoki forest to fill out a questionnaire about the emotional changes they had noticed.
Participants reported feeling a greater sense of exhilaration, and an overall reduction in feelings of tension, fatigue and depression.
Phytoncides — chemicals emitted by trees to repel harmful insects — may be one reason why people feel better after spending time surrounded by nature. Studies have found that phytoncides' effect on humans include lowering blood pressure and promoting psychological and physical relaxation.
"Phytoncides aren't the only factor," Uehara said. "Green scenery, fresh air, the songs of birds and the sounds of the wind, conversations with other people as we work — these factors combine to have good effects on us."
After studying silviculture at Tokyo University of Agriculture, Uehara became a teacher at an agricultural high school in Nagano Prefecture, where on occasion he found himself counseling truant students.
He was intrigued to find that the most productive of these conversations tended to take place in an experimental forest on the school grounds.
This realization motivated him to pursue the idea of forest therapy. He became a certified counselor with the Japanese Association of Counseling Science, and then founded the Society of Forest Amenity and Human Health Promotion in Japan.
Members of the society include hospitals in Hokkaido and Kagoshima Prefecture that use forest therapy as a treatment for dementia patients. Social welfare facilities in Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures are also members.
"There have been cases of dementia patients and integration disorder syndrome patients whose symptoms became less severe after taking part in forest therapy with uncontrolled forests," Uehara said.
"Our society would like to find ways to care for the health of forests and people," he said.
For more information, visit the society's Web site at www.forest-humanhealth.com.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.