Health, wellness and the Japanese garden

For several decades, countries around the world have acknowledged that stress and stress-related diseases are a global health crisis taking a huge toll on society. In the early 1980s, the Forest Agency of Japan began recommending people to take strolls in the woods for better health.

(Sifferlin, Times, 7/14/2016). This therapeutic practice is called shinrin-yoku, which translates as “forest bathing,” and is a popular way in Japan to rejuvenate health. Forest bathing activities include multi-day immersion in forests, more than 60 official forest therapy trails designated for shinrin-yoku therapy and certified doctors in forest medicine.

The research around forest bathing has resulted in quantitative data that supports the conclusion that sensorial exposure to nature improves one’s physiological and psychological well-being. Experiments involved measuring the stress hormones in people as they were exposed to natural elements, such as a vase of roses, a bonsai tree, garden spaces and walks within forests. Results showed that even a modest amount of exposure to nature, including flowers, reduced stress. This has led to forest therapy expert Yoshifumi Miyazaki recommending that we find our “Favorite Nature” so that we can enjoy shinrin-yoku in our daily lives. Ways to enjoy nature include appreciating potted plants on a balcony, a natural wood table or your favorite spot in a local park.

These forest therapy concepts have been widely known in landscape architecture and garden design for centuries, with natural elements playing a central role in how landscapes are designed. However, with the growing social awareness of therapeutic landscapes, public spaces such as parks, botanical gardens, and urban open spaces are being designed with wellness in mind. For instance, the therapeutic garden has become a sought-after outdoor space at health care and rehabilitative settings ( These gardens typically include sensory-oriented plants that are focused on color, texture and fragrance.

FOREST BATHING — A recent forest bathing event at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. photo by Keiji Uesugi

The Los Angeles County Arboretum holds a forest bathing tour numerous times a month, where a guide takes a group around the botanical garden and conducts several activities to help them become attuned to the surrounding flora and fauna, with a focus on the healing power of nature.

In my landscape architecture courses, I explain that trees are especially important elements to consider in design, since they provide shade; beautify spaces throughout the year with flowers, leaves and fall foliage (if they are deciduous); provide habitat for wildlife; store carbon that would otherwise be in the atmosphere; and create a sense of calm with their forms, colors, textures and scale.

In recent years, Japanese gardens have become recognized as therapeutic landscapes that weave together the healing properties of nature within artistically crafted spaces. Although there are numerous types of garden styles that developed in Japan, there are common themes based on nature present within many of them, including:

• The garden is a personal expression and interpretation of nature.
• The idea that nature is in constant change and motion to achieve balance.
• The path can be a journey that reveals the garden step-by-step like a stroll through nature.
• Key elements are rock, water, and plants (literally or symbolically) and are arranged in ways that draw inspiration from natural landscapes, religious scriptures or other artistic works.
Japanese gardens have had tremendous global appeal over the past 130 years, as people in countries outside Japan continue to build them.

In North America alone, there are thousands of public and private Japanese gardens that each have their own stories and ways in which nature is expressed. The incorporation of wellness programs has been a logical step for many public gardens since they have featured educational and health-based activities for several decades.

At the Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego, visitors who repeatedly visit are drawn to the quiet corners of the garden where they meditate to calm their mind as they sit underneath large canopy trees while watching and listening to the waterfalls and streams. Therapeutic and wellness activities such as yoga, reiki, sound meditation, and breathing exercises are held regularly throughout the year and become popular programs. Some of these activities are not historically related to Japan, but it shows the universal value of the Japanese garden as a therapeutic setting.

I feel that current societal issues concerning health and wellness will continue to shape the future of Japanese gardens as they play a central role in providing a therapeutic setting and offering wellness programs that are accessible to anyone in need. Presently, I am conducting a landscape design studio in which my students are exploring design concepts for a wellness center at the JFG that features dedicated spaces for group therapy sessions and a Japanese bath called an ofuro based on balneology. This design studio has opened my eyes to the possibilities of integrating therapeutic strategies with Japanese garden design, and I am looking forward to finding new ways in which the Japanese garden can be a place where people can find their Favorite Nature and find balance in their lives.

Keiji Uesugi, PLA is the principal of the landscape architecture firm, TUA Inc. in West Covina, Calif., and a faculty member of the landscape architecture department at Cal Poly Pomona University. A licensed landscape architect with more than 20 years of professional experience, he is an expert in cultural landscapes and Japanese gardens of North America. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.