September 22, 2017
Words & Photos: Sam Scrimger
Sam Scrimger explores the shrines and temples of Japan, hidden among the countries’ bustling metropolises.
Shinrin Yoku is a medicinal practice developed in Japan during the 1980s, and literally means “forest bathing”. The method is exactly what it sounds like, and traditionally means a moment of woodland immersion by which you are cleansed of your stress, simply by being in the forest. If you’re at all outdoorsy, this might not be a new concept to you, and you may already find peace in the woods or on a mountain hike. As a Canadian rock-climber and avid interior camper, I felt that I understood Shinrin Yoku pretty well before I got to Japan, and I felt revitalized and calmed while in the wilderness in this new country. I had much to learn.
The bamboo forest in Kyoto, despite its dense tourist population, was a sort of dream-like version of a feeling I had known in other places. The tall, living poles that comprise this quiet haven provided me with ample mental space and allowed me to better ground myself in the midst of a new journey, which is a useful thing to any traveler.
Similarly, hiking in the wilderness around Mt Fuji, just outside of Hokone, put me back in touch with nature after a lengthy urban stint in Tokyo. Compared to forests in New Zealand and Canada, the Japanese treat their wilderness with a similar respect, although Japan practices selective logging to minimize large-scale deforestation. This was the first time that I’d ever been on a mid-length hike where I came across loggers. Despite this, the rest I felt in both Hokone and Kyoto’s forests was something I enjoyed thoroughly, and something I had expected to find. What I was less prepared for was the rejuvenating effects of Shinrin Yoku while within the dense cities of Japan.
Osaka and Tokyo are enormous first world cities with about nine million people dwelling within each of their cores. I traveled to Japan for a month and found myself deeply immersed in a series of bustling, efficient metropolises. The subways ran perfectly, no one jay-walked, and there were millions of people working and traveling at all hours of the day. Coming from New Zealand, the sheer amount of people and noise was somewhat overwhelming, but it was partly reminiscent of my home city, Toronto. Despite how incredibly safe the cities are, when you spend a whole day completely engrossed in a foreign metropolis that’s always on the move, it can be, and was, somewhat stressful. And that’s where I found the inner city Shinrin Yoku.
“Essentially, in the midst of one of the most densely populated first world cities there are pockets of green and spiritual sanctity in which to rest and recuperate.”
Japan’s cities soar into the sky and carpet the ground on a seemingly endless scale. Shibuya subway station boasts a record number of pedestrian crossers—about twenty five hundred every time the light changes, making over one million per day. Yet, some careful turns down side streets will lead the intrepid (and maybe lost) wanderer to an adorable and empty street, featuring an ancient wooden shrine.
There are shrines and temples of this sort all over the country. Hidden away just out of sight, or in the center of busy streets, these open air atria can provide sanctuary to the tired or overwhelmed traveler. The shrines themselves have been burnt down and rebuilt numerous times, but the site of peace and worship can sometimes date back to the early 900s.
“Hidden away just out of sight, or in the center of busy streets, these open air atria can provide sanctuary to the tired or overwhelmed traveler.”
At first, I wondered if I was permitted to enter onto these holy grounds, but was received with acceptance (and English) on signs and by fellow seekers of tranquility. I walked through the old wooden arch, into a walled courtyard, and headed along the manicured flagstone path to a place where I was able to wash my hands in order to properly enter the temple. Sometimes there were prayer ceremonies going on, sometimes there were tourists with large cameras and larger smiles, but every time I entered a shrine I felt a profound sense of relief. The small pockets of natural gardens can breathe life into you, especially if you are someone who spends much of their free time adventuring outside of cities and into the wilderness. The flora might be well-tended and it might be wild, the site may have thousands of visitors every day, or it might be more derelict and hidden on the outskirts of a settlement. Wherever this place of worship and centering is, it is impossible not to feel the stress depart from your body and mind upon entry of these sacred spaces. Essentially, in the midst of one of the most densely populated first world cities there are pockets of green and spiritual sanctity in which to rest and recuperate. The left hand washes the right from the flowing stream, and you can take a moment to give thanks that you’re on an adventure, and that you’ve found solace.