Forest baths, hot springs and zen gardens: How to do wellness travel in Japan

2019-01-09 19:00 - Ethan Van Diemen
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Japan by now is firmly established in the minds of many as a notably unique and curious place. The country is a wonderful, whimsical mixture of ancient tradition and technological urban modernity and the result is, well, interesting to be euphemistic. 

From ancient shrines in the shadow of snow-capped mountains to robot bars in buzzing cities, there are tons of things to see and do. One of the most unique aspects of Japan is that despite its often frenetic pace, hard-working, productive culture and urban bustle - the country somehow manages to simultaneously be one of the greatest countries in the world to unwind, relax and rejuvenate.

So put your exploration of the neon-lit metropolises, imperial palaces and historical landmarks on the backburner for a moment and read on to find out how to find your chill in Japan.

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Karesansui

You may be familiar with the concept of Zen, the Japanese variant of Chan Buddhism. It is usually associated with mental images of cross-legged individuals in kimonos sitting with their closed eyes, quietly contemplating life in a meticulously manicured garden or landscape. 

If that's the image you have, you're actually not too far off. Zen is associated with the practice of meditative training for awareness and equanimity. It is supposed to afford individuals a glimpse into their true nature and open up a new pathway to an enlightened existence.

For our purposes, it's really just a cool way to meditate in silence and still your mind and body and breathe in deep as you contemplate and reflect on life and how to move forward with ease. There are no better places to do precisely this than the zen gardens or, more accurately, in the karesansui (dry landscape gardens) of Japan, particularly in the Kyoto region.  

These gardens often marked by boulders, sometimes by greenery and always by painstakingly groomed gravel contain these elements that are intended to represent larger landscapes and inspire your meditation and contemplation. Large stones often represent mountain formations or even waterfalls while the raked pebbles evoke rippling waves.

If you're looking to enjoy some wellness on your travels and a counterbalance to the always-on, hyper-connected modern life - look no further than a trip to one of the many beautiful karesansui in Japan. 

A Japanese woman in kimono, in her 40รข??s, is appr(Photo: iStock)

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Onsen

We needn't tell you about how relaxing a hot bath is so it follows that we needn't explain how doing the same thing in a Japanese natural hot spring can do wonders for your health and wellness. 

In Japan, there are some 27 000 bubbling hot springs or onsen that travellers looking to enjoy some health and wellness activity on their travels simply must partake in. In Hokkaido, you will find the greatest concentration of some 3000 onsen towns in Japan.

Onsen is different from your run-of-the-mill hot springs because there are a few requirements that have to be met in order for the hot spring bath to be considered onsen. Mainly, they have to contain a mineral such as iron, sulphur, bicarbonate and so on. Each is said to have a different therapeutic effect and can usually be identified as the dominant mineral by the colour of the water.

Another important thing to remember before you submerge yourself in the hot waters and drift away steamy bliss is that there is, like with most things Japanese, proper etiquette to observe. You can find out more about that process by following this link.

Two japanese enjoy the Onsen - traditional spa.(Photo: iStock)

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Shinrin-yoku

Shinrin-yoku, or 'forest bathing' is an interesting way to feel good and revitalised that does not involve taking a bath in a tub filled with pine needles or the contents of a forest floor. There is also no water or bathing involved, instead, time is spent in a forest for the purported health and wellness benefits it brings. 

Many of us outdoor enthusiasts can attest to the healing properties of exposure to the pristine, untouched and rugged beauty of nature. Far removed from the hustle and bustle of modern life, these spaces, relatively isolated from the humdrum of society can feel like refuges where one is able to heal and calm the mind in pursuit of greater wellness. 

The Japanese have a greater understanding of this than most with numerous studies undertaken that purport to show tangible improvements to health including immune system boosts, mental health improvement and lower levels of stress. 

It's not hard to imagine this all being in the realm of possibility as we quiet our minds and listen to the sounds of the forest, breathe in the scents of the trees and clean, fresh air while we smile at the light gently pouring in through the canopy. Vitality, energy, calm - this is what forest bathing in Japan offers travellers so open your senses to nature and make sure you head to a forest on your next trip.

Famous bamboo forest Sagano in Kyoto in Japan(Photo: iStock)

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