It's no secret a walk in the woods can soothe the soul, but visitors to a forest in Nagano Prefecture can now get medical proof of its physical benefits as well.
Every Thursday afternoon from May to October, a doctor comes to the "forest therapy" hall operated by the Agematsumachi town government in Akasawa Shizen Kyuyorin (Akasawa natural recreation forest). Dispatched from the Nagano prefectural-run Kiso Hospital in nearby Kisomachi, the doctor provides free health counseling to people who come to the forest for therapeutic walks.
Health consultations are conducted in a room called "Mori no Oisha-san" (Doctor in the forest) that contains a blood-pressure gauge, weight scale and other equipment.
"Your blood pressure is a little high," a public health nurse told me after a checkup. "Did you not sleep well?"
I'd left Tokyo early in the morning, so I'd actually only slept three hours.
The nurse advised me: "Don't immediately enter an uneven walking course. You should walk slowly along a mountain stream instead."
Akasawa Shizen Kyuyorin was recognized in April 2006 as a "forest therapy base" by the Forest Therapy Society, a nonprofit organization based in Tokyo. In choosing such forests, the society scientifically measures their effectiveness in relaxing people's minds and bodies.
It also takes into account such factors as whether the forests have accommodation facilities.
The NPO also recognizes relaxing walking trails as "therapy roads." There are now 44 recognized forest therapy bases and therapy roads nationwide, but Akasawa is the first in which medical staff are involved.
There are eight walking courses, one of which is level so people in wheelchairs can use it. I selected a three-kilometer round-trip course named Komadori (robin) at the recommendation of Takashi Miura, an employee of Agematsu Kanko Kaihatsu, a tourism promotion enterprise in the town.
"Please use all five senses. Smell the kiso cypress and listen to the birds singing, and sometimes shift your attention from the ground to the sky," Miura said.
I walked on the well-prepared trail along the mountain stream and then went down to the lower part of the stream. I could see clear, cool water there and smelled the refreshing aroma of a large cypress tree.
I walked slowly for about 90 minutes, ending up back at the hall, where I measured my blood pressure again. Although my pulse was a little faster, my blood pressure was lower. A group of three women from the prefecture also were surprised at their results, elated to see so much benefit just from walking in the forest.
"The harder a person works, the more effect forest therapy has," said Hide Kasai, 48, the physician in charge of health counseling that day.
Since fiscal 2007, Kiso Hospital has conducted an overnight "forest therapy checkup" program under which applicants can receive health checks at the hospital and enjoy therapy walking in the forest based on its advice.
Available options include a basic course (9,000 yen, S$141) in which people can receive health counseling from doctors and a stress check, and a full course (16,000 yen) including a blood test, a chest X-ray and an electrocardiogram. There are additional fees for accommodation.
Hospital Director Shigeki Kumeda said: "I'd like all the visitors to relax and recuperate in the forest. I hope forest therapy can revitalize the local community and its economy."
According to Kumeda, research shows that forest therapy boosts the immune system for about a month.