Urban Shinrin-yoku (都会の 森林浴) : Top Places to Destress in the City


Shinrin-yoku (森林浴) is a Japanese for “forest bathing,” something that I’ve always enjoyed doing, even though I didn’t know that there was a word for it.

Every language contains its own set of focal vocabularies, that is to say, a set a specialized words to describe — with great precision — the sorts of things that the culture considers important enough to elaborate upon.  The old myth about “eskimos having words for snow” would be good example of this concept, were it not factually incorrect… at least compared to English, which has a flurry of its own flakey variants (hmmm… anyone know how many words for snow there are in Classical Arabic, or maybe the Saharan languages?)   Typically, the economic activities of a given group of people will cause that group to generate large quantities of specialized words pertaining to their field of practice. For example, software programmers have their own vocabulary, as do lawyers, architects, herdsmen, dairy farmers, etc.  However, outside of the area of expertise, such an expanded focal vocabulary does not typically serve much purpose (despite my belief that there are no true synonyms).

Then, once in a while, along comes a culture with certain peculiarities which — eureka! — cause it to generate a single, unique term that delightfully captures some phenomenon or aspect of the human condition.

For example, Schadenfreude (delight in another person’s misfortune) and L’esprit d’escalier (coming up with a witty comeback too late, after the conversation), are words that perhaps only the Germans and the French could have come up with, and yet, these words have a certain  je-ne-sais-quoi universal appeal (..and yes, I’m still on the lookout for a language that has deemed it important enough to describe The DANdelion™ Effect.).

There is great pleasure in discovering that particular, seul mot juste, for that thing which you never knew had a name.

What is Shinrin-yoku ?

Thanks to Mysending’s blog, I recently learned about a Japanese term — Shinrin-yoku — which describes a favorite pastime, which is immersing myself in a heady botanical space, the more Dagobah-like, the better.

I started doing this as a kid, and I still do it today, especially when I feel trapped in a harsh urban or edge-city environment.

It’s a simple, three-step process:

Step One: Recognize the Stress Signs

I’m stuck in rush-hour traffic, somewhere in the outskirts of Tampa, Florida, right after a thunderstorm in the late afternoon, on a six-lane road surrounding by fast-food chains, strip malls and automobile dealerships. My cellphone connection is spotty, I’ve just completed a tense and counter-productive conference call with a client and I have a wee bit too much caffeine in my system. Hot mess.  The air outside is a torrid mixture of humidity and vehicle exhaust, and the air circulating in my cheap rental car is frigid and stale, with notes of artificially-scented deoderizer.

The sun is setting, casting an angry yellow glow through the smog.

A double rainbow is forming overhead, between the visual pollution of telephone wires and traffic signals.

I want out.

Step Two: Find a Green Patch

I open up my GPS-enabled map and note that it indicates a large patch of green on it, not far from where I am.  That’s what I usually do: Find a wide expanse of green on the map, preferably surrounding some irregularly shaped patches of blue, with the words “conservation land” or “state park” or “national forest” near it.

In this case the words are unfamiliar — “Lettuce Lake” — but the shape of the green and blue blobs on the map look promising. Also, I have a heavenly sign: One end of the rainbow happens to be pointing right in the direction of where I want to go.

Step Three: Soak In It, Soak It In

By the time I arrive, the park ranger tells me there’s only 15 minutes before the park closes (at dusk… apparently that’s when the alligators and coyotes start their wild rumpus) and that it might not be worth the entry fee.

It’s worth it.

Sometimes, all you need is 15 minutes.

Too much polution? Seek the Phytoncide Solution

Here’s a description of Shinrin-yoku and its health benefits: 

Forest bathing

The Japanese term Shinrin-yoku may literally mean “forest bathing,” but it doesn’t involve soaking in a tub among the trees. Rather it refers to spending time in the woods for its therapeutic (or bathing) effect. Most of us have felt tension slip away in the midst of trees and nature’s beauty. But science now confirms its healing influence on the body. When you spend a few hours on a woodland hike or camping by a lake you breathe in phytoncides, active substances released by plants to protect them against insects and from rotting, which appear to lower blood pressure and stress and boost your immune system.

(source.  http://www.mnn.com/health/fitness-well-being/photos/7-odd-natural-ways-to-boost-your-health/forest-bathing  )

(cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forest_bathing )

For the even more scientifically-minded, read the pubmed article, “Trends in research related to “Shinrin-yoku” (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing) in Japan,” by Y. Tsunetsugu, B.J. Park, and Y. Miyazaki  (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19585091), which is a meta-study of research on the physiological effects of forest environments (or isolated elements of those environments, e.g. cedar wood, running water, foliage) on the different senses, e.g. visual, auditory, olfactory, and  tactile.

In any case, if you’re fortunate enough to live in a climate and location that has large, immersive forests and wetlands, you now have one more “scientifically proven” reason to feel lucky.

But what if you’re an urban dweller?

What if you’re surrounded high-rise towers, mid-rise walk-ups and/or low-rise wastelands of never-ending concrete, metal and plastic?

What if your city is Montreal, Canada?

What if you live in a place where one-third of the year resembles a cold, dry, flash-frozen asphalt tundra? ..where the air around you does not provide anything in the way of phytoncides… but rather, acts like a Dementor, sucking all the heat and moisture right out of your nose?

Best Places for Shinrin-yoku, in Cold Cities

Most major cities have a botanical garden… and within that botanical garden, a glass-enclosed microclimate such as a greenhouse, palm house, or if you can get one, a fern house.  These are the places to go to, in order to get your shinrin-yoku fix.  I’ve made a habit of checking in to these spots when visiting a city, when times allows for it.

Here are some instances of urban shinrin-yoku that I’ve enjoyed over the years — some of these are well-known attractions, some of these are lesser-known local spots:

The Montreal Biodome — check out the simulated rainforest environment, trees, flowers, monkeys, the whole nine yards…. used to be a bicycle racetrack

The IBM Building — in Montreal at 1250 René-Lévesque: atrium of soaring bamboo against backdrop of miserable grey slushy roadways… ’nuff said

Allan Gardens — in Toronto, palm house FTW

Cloud Forest Conservatory — a postage-stamp-sized refuge in the heart of downtown Toronto

Kew Gardens — a giant of London, max humidity to be found in the Water Lily House

Class of 1959 Chapel — at Harvard Business School, another small refuge  in a cold, cold place… waterfalls, papyrus plants and koi fish provide healing for the non-denominational soul…   the interior courtyard at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is nice too, if you like a more Mediterranean environment

San Antonio Botanical Garden — well, not exactly a cold city, but it includes one of the best conservatories, complete with a steamy fern house

The Eden Project is still on my bucket list.

Where else?

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on May 14, 2012, in Diversions, Green Style, Jargon, photography, plants, Positivity and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. cf. 25 Handy Words That Simply Don’t Exist In English: http://sobadsogood.com/2012/04/29/25-words-that-simply-dont-exist-in-english/

    (well, some of these do exist in English… but still a good list… with some great comments too)

    cf. an older, annotated version of the list: http://facetcetera.blogspot.com/2012/05/28-words-that-dont-exist-in-english.html

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