Discovering the Healing Power of Trees In Tofino

A forest bathing getaway to Tofino unlocks the restorative potential of nature.

By Athena McKenzie

WavesThe original trail to Hot Springs Cove was created over time by the Hesquiaht First Nation and then by early settlers, who created the boardwalk. A new boardwalk was constructed in the 1990s to protect the natural landscape. Photograph by Carrie Cole / Alamy.

The winding boardwalk trail to Hot Springs Cove offers Instagram photo-ops around every corner. Dappled light filters through the forest canopy, playing off the gnarled and ropey trunks of a myriad of massive redwood cedars. But I resist the urge to pull out my phone to share the wonder on social media. My partner, Robert, and I are immersing ourselves in the latest health and wellness trend: forest bathing. First steps: find a spot; leave your camera and phone behind.

When I tell people about my forest bathing trip, I’m met with confused faces and quips about lying naked in the woods. But forest bathing does not require disrobing or taking any kind of bath (though a soak in a natural hot spring is encouraged — more on that later.) The practice asks one to use all of their senses to slowly and mindfully experience nature — to soak in the splendour of the forest.

“This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging. It is simply being in nature, connecting with it through our sense of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch,” writes Dr. Quin Li in his book Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness, The Japanese Art and Science of Shinrin-Yoku.

“Indoors, we tend to use only two senses, our eyes and our ears. Outside is where we can smell the flowers, taste the fresh air, look at the changing colours of the trees, hear the birds singing and feel the breeze on our skin. And when we open up our senses, we begin to connect to the natural world.”

Li, an associate professor at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo and president of the Society of Forest Medicine in Japan, is considered one of the world’s leading experts on forest bathing. He has conducted numerous studies and collected a huge mass of data to understand the benefits of forest bathing on various aspects of human health.

While originally a Japanese practice that started as a national health program in the 1980s, forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) is finding devotees around the world, due to its promises of reduced blood pressure, lowered stress, increased energy and improved concentration and memory. One study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that nature and forest bathing “offers humans an authentic way of healing and health prevention for the mind, body and spirit.”

Time in nature may seem a simple fix but it’s a proven balm for the ills and constant demands of the digital age.

“The good news is that even a small amount of time in nature can have an impact on our health,” Li says. “A two-hour forest bath will help you to unplug from technology and slow down. It will bring you into the present moment and de-stress and relax you. When you connect to nature through all five of your senses, you begin to draw on the vast array of benefits the natural world can provide.”

Profound Beauty

There are a number of simple ways to try Japanese forest-bathing, from visiting a local park to filling your home with indoor plants, but the first place I think of when I hear about the practice is Tofino. It is important to find a place that suits you and that encourages strong connections. In his book, Li shares the expression ygen, a Japanese word for a feeling that is hard to put into words but that gives a profound sense of the beauty and mystery of the universe. With its dramatic seascapes, dense rainforest and towering trees, Tofino has always inspired a deep sense of ygen for me; my first trip to Tofino, when I was still living in Ontario, was so affecting I knew I had to move to B.C. as soon as I could.

Tofino Resort and Marina. Photograph by Joshua Lawrence. 

The new Tofino Resort and Marina is our base camp for our nature adventure. Located right in the heart of town, it sits on the waters of Tofino Inlet, offering intriguing views of the big trees of Meares Island and the quirky float-house community at Strawberry Island. Our first night we sit on our deck and watch a sea lion bob around the harbour as sunset paints the horizon a flaming orange.

The view is mostly obscured by fog the next day when we head out on the resort’s six-hour tour to Hot Springs Cove. As it clears, our guide, Captain Ike, points out the area at the centre of the Clayoquot protests in the early 1990s. Known as the “War in the Woods,” the logging protests drew international attention.

“It’s a good thing they did,” Ike says. “Or else there would be no trees left for anyone to enjoy.” 

As we make our way along the two-kilometer walk from the Maquinna Marine Park dock to the hot springs, we follow Li’s instructions for forest walking: slow walking is recommended for “beginners.” It is important not to hurry through the forest — we are not on a hike. By taking our time, we can keep our senses open. We stop every now and then to take in our surroundings, feeling the knobby bark on the cedars, smelling the damp and resinous air, and listening to the soothing rhythm of the distant waves.

We emerge from the cool shade of the forest to blue skies peeking through the fog. Clear, steamy water cascades down the rocks to form deep, narrow pools near the rugged shoreline. For those lucky enough to have access, Li says that hot-spring therapy is considered a natural extension of forest therapy. The hot, silky water is intensely soothing and our walk back to the boat is languid and relaxed (and we do allow ourselves to stop and take a few photos).

All the Senses

Baked halibut at Wolf in the Fog. 

The day is all about the sights, sound and feel of nature; the evenings are all about the taste. According to Li’s guide to making the most of nature therapy, there is no better way to taste the flavour of the region than to eat the foods that are grown there. At Wolf in the Fog, we feast on chef Nicholas Nutting’s baked halibut — caught in the very waters we sailed on earlier in the day — with bright green brassica, local nettles, peas, butter clams, radish coins and little pierogies.

Bar director Hailey Pasemko mixes a Cedar Sour, created with cedar rye (made in-house by soaking the purified offcuts from a local furniture maker in rye). The cocktail is earthy and spicy, an evocative sensory reminder of our earlier hike. 

According to Li, the fragrance of cedarwood relaxes and calms the spirit. Between the day immersed in nature and our woodsy cocktail, it’s safe to say we have achieved peak relaxation.

It’s tempting to credit our blissed-out state to a particular magic of place. But according to Li you can forest bathe anywhere there are trees or lots of plants; in hot weather or cold; in rain, sun or snow.

“The sounds of the forest, the scent of the trees, the sunlight playing through the leaves, the fresh, clean air — these things give us a sense of comfort,” Li says. “Being in nature can restore our mood, give us back our energy, vitality, refresh and rejuvenate us.”

Mission accomplished. 

Writer Athena McKenzie forest bathing in Tofino. Photograph by Robert Wiersema.

This article is from the July/August 2018 issue of YAM.