Forest therapy, a guided outdoor practice, can benefit our well-being and give us more grounding. A licensed guide helps those who join a session to rediscover the joy of wandering and wondering in the forest or another natural environment. Beyond relaxation and the connection with nature , there are numerous health benefits that have been researched and documented, for example, in the International Handbook of Forest Therapy.
Japan Today talked to two licensed forest therapy guides in Japan — Makiko Sugishita and Stacy Kurokawa — about their training, current activities and how guided forest therapy sessions can be more beneficial to us than just a walk in the park.
Makiko Sugishita, forest therapy guide on Yakushima Island
Makiko Sugishita signed up for forest therapy training after her husband had seen a TV program about it and noticed how similar her activities in the forest of Yakushima were to those described. She moved to Yakushima Island with her husband and two children in 2020 after having worked in African and Asian countries in the field of global health and development for 20 years.
She received her first license from the Forest Therapy Society in Japan after completing the required training but she felt that she wanted to learn more about all aspects of being a guide. Thus she joined a six-month program (online) and immersion) offered by the U.S.-based Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT).
“Forest therapy is not just about healthcare but it is also about how we coexist with nature and our place within nature.” —Makiko Sugishita
The ANFT training introduced her to the concepts of the “basic sequence” and the “way of the guide”. The former is a structure for a forest therapy walk and the latter captures the core functions and competencies that a forest therapy guide must have to be able to facilitate well.
“The ANFT method sets standards yet there is still a lot of room for the guide’s individuality and creativity,” she says. For example in the “tea ceremony” at the end of the walk.
Her guiding now follows the ANFT method and she has created her own program, Kaleidoscope. But she is not the only one who guides in the Yakushima forest.
There are at least 200 nature guides on Yakushima; they are naturalists and ‘wild men’ who know every tree and plant by name and climb every mountain on the island but her walks are very different, Sugishita says.
“I take people on slow walks of short distances that allow for a deeper contact with nature through sensory experiences by staying in one place for hours. I encourage participants by giving them ‘invitations’, which are some sort of instructions,” explains Sugishita.
Those who sign up for a forest therapy walk with her are not always tourists but she actively targets a wide range of people in the business, healthcare and wellness sectors, including care-givers and care managers. There are also participants from fasting retreats and agro-ecology retreats and some people who just want to relax in nature and reflect on their life.
While a forest therapy walk has some immediate and measurable health benefits, Sugishita also wants to plant some seeds for a long-term change in how we relate to nature.
“My ultimate goal on my walks is for people to remember that we are part of nature. We humans too, were born as nature beings.”
Stacy Kurokawa, forest therapy guide in the Yokkaichi-Tsu area
Kurokawa grew up on a farm in rural British Columbia, Canada and has been living in Japan since 2003. She became fed up with city-living in Japan and yearned for a garden, a pet and ample time in nature like she had as a child. Reality hit home when her family moved to Yokkaichi City, one of Japan’s most industrial towns, for her Japanese husband`s work.
This is when she learned by chance about forest therapy through the internet. Kurokawa, who studied environmental studies at university, found short walks in natural places to be therapeutic and was curious how a guide would deepen the experience.
She began to look for training opportunities and researched forest therapy guide licensing programs in English. She chose an intensive program in her home country Canada with the Global Institute for Forest Therapy (GIFT). Their founder was a graduate from the ANFT training program.
“Forest therapy is dedicating time to just be, to grounding and playing in nature, and delighting in the wonder, wisdom and scale of the more-than-human-world.” —Stacy Kurokawa
“It was intensive, and overwhelming. It took me one year to get through all the journaling tasks and three practicum walks to become a licensed guide, although officially it should be completed in six months,” she recounts.
As she worked through her training tasks, Kurokawa explored local parks in Yokkaichi looking for places to guide and also places she could easily go in an urban environment for her own nature connection.
She found it challenging to research local land history and wild plants, so she joined a short weekend training offered by Shinano City in Nagano Prefecture which focused on the history of the practice, identification of wild herbs, essential oils in nature and rural tourism in that area.
“It appeared to be a guide-centered, informational and recreational experience incorporating activities like resting in a hammock, Nordic walking and yoga,” she says.
Forest therapy programs in Japan are often developed by local governments and they are executed by the local tourism office together with various city hall departments. The aim is to add appeal to the area by setting up a designated forest therapy base and trails. There are currently over 50 such sites in Japan certified by the Japanese Forest Therapy Society, and Shinano is one of them.
Kurokawa is still at the beginning of her forest therapy guide career but she hosts a walk or two almost every month. She guides in three local parks in Yokkaichi City. The oldest participant so far was over 70 and the youngest 12, not counting a baby.
“A mom with a baby in a carrier, an elderly person, a local, a foreigner, a teenager, they all have different perceptions and concerns but on a walk, in sensing what is alive for them in the moment, in nature, roles are cast aside and all participants are equals,” she says.
“They all take pleasure in nature with an equal chance to contribute to the group and to benefit from the practice.”
Why walk with a forest therapy guide?
Cynics might say it is old wisdom that a walk in nature is good for us, so why do we need a guide?
“Many people lead a busy urban lifestyle now and hardly set foot into a forest. The natural environment feels alien to them and they are afraid to be alone in nature. A structured walk with a well-trained guide serves as a safety net, to make them feel secure, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally,” says Sugishita.
“Some participants on my forest therapy walks reported that they cannot feel the here & now. They needed guidance for how to pay attention with their senses and how to connect to the natural world.”
Kurokawa adds: “Alone you would pull out your smart-phone within minutes, walk fast or perhaps be preoccupied by schedule or busy chatting to a friend as you go, or you snap photos and then move on.”
“The secret of a forest therapy walk is to pause and really take in a place with all your senses, and delight in the moment. A trained guide wants to help you with that.”© Japan Today