From its extraordinary Onsen culture to forest bathing, Japan is an emerging wellness destination with unique experiences that encompass mental and physical health, quality rest and spiritual wellness, writes Aleney de Winter.
There’s a reason the people of Japan have the longest average life expectancy of anyone in the world. Of course, the Japanese diet, which is mostly fresh and unprocessed and relies on few refined ingredients, helps, but it’s not the whole story. Much of the credit must go to Japan’s mindful lifestyle and wellness methods that draw on ancient wisdom, despite the country’s thoroughly modern lifestyle, and are woven into everyday life.
Here are four of our favourite ways to help you discover a healthier calmer and happier you on a healing holiday in Japan.
Zen Mindfulness Retreats
Zen is more than a throwaway word for felling relaxed. It is is a Japanese school of Buddhism which emphasises meditative training and awareness. There are many ways foreigners can embrace and learn the art of Zen in Japan, from full scale Buddhist retreats to unique homestay experiences.
Get lost in meditation at Zenko-ji Temple Hotel in Takayama, a city in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture in central Japan. This is a great place for beginners to start their Zen journey, with the chief priest guiding you through the Zen fundamentals of harmony, purity, tranquillity and respect, with detailed explanations and breathing techniques provided, during your stay.
Personal and intimate, a homestay experience at Beppu Zen Retreat, in the quiet village of Hiji in Ōita Prefecture, offers a gentle introduction to Zen meditation. This immersive experience is led by Zen Buddhist monk Yodo Kono and his family, just 10 minutes from the centre of Beppu, the hot spring capital of Japan.
And in Kyoto’s Myoshin-ji Temple complex, explore Zen meditation or zazen at regular and advanced level, at the 16th-century Shunkoin temple where a variety of programs are conducted in English.
Like a giant kettle, Japan has water quite literally percolating out of the ground in hot springs at more than 3000 locations across every region of the country. These hot springs are known as onsen and soaking in traditional baths filled with their mineral-rich waters are a long-standing Japanese tradition, believed to hold many medicinal benefits. The healing properties of the mineral-rich waters are said to do everything from assisting the flow of chi energy to improving muscle pain, arthritis, skin disorders and even digestion. This is due to geothermal water containing a variety of minerals, such as iron, sulfur, radium and magnesium. The hot waters stimulate the system, provides skin care and can have positive effects on circulation, nerves and muscle rigidity.
You’ll find onsen everywhere. Some of the most beautiful and peaceful spots to take the plunge are in outdoor locations surrounded by nature, but you’ll also find them in the snow, piped into ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and in the many public bathhouses scattered across the country.
If you’re a fan of the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away, Matsuyama Dogo Onsen in Shikoku is iconic. This onsen has been attracting bathers for over a thousand years, including Japan’s Imperial family. According to legend, its waters even healed Sukunahikona, a deity from Izumo, from a fatal illness. It is said he was so full of energy he leapt from his death bed and started dancing on the spot. These days the wooden public bathhouse, though bereft of dancing deities, is a fascinating maze of stairways, passages and rooms leading to those magical waters.
Arima Osen, located at the base of a scenic valley near Kobe in the Hyōgo Prefecture of Honshu is the oldest hot spring town in Japan, boasting more than 1300 years of history. The unique hot spring retreat boasts two kinds of springs, kinsen (golden spring) and ginsen (silver spring). Originally established as a place of healing, the water here is not of volcanic origin. The kinsen’s golden brown water is loaded with salts and iron and is said to be helpful for sufferers of joint and skin disease. Ginsen offers a carbonate spring which aids circulation and a radioactive spring containing the rare metal radon that enhances natural healing.
Want to combine the healing powers of onsen bathing with your next ski trip? three Around three hours northwest of Tokyo is Nozawa Onsen, the oldest ski resort in Japan. Offering excellent skiing with a side of traditional culture, it’s renowned for its hot springs, which are the perfect place for a muscle melting moment of healing after a day on the slopes.
For something completely different, why not visit Ibusuki Onsen, a hot spring town at the southern tip of Kagoshima prefecture. While you’re more than welcome to wallow in its hot springs, guests here prefer to experience sand bathing. A great detox for the body, sand bathing sees guests buried up to their neck in 50-55 degrees Celsius black sand, with only their heads exposed to air, to sweat out their body’s impurities and leave (after ten minutes) feeling refreshed.
Shinrin-yoku Forest bathing
First documented 800 years BC by Shinto practitioners who revered nature, Shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, is the mindful practice of being and connecting with the natural world. In recent years, overwork and modern-day stresses have seen Shinrin-yoku make a comeback. Gaining popularity the world over, researchers have established that just 15 minutes of this conscious and contemplative immersion in nature lowers cortisol levels, heart rate and blood pressure, improves sleep, and boosts the immune system.
While there is always a DIY option of just taking a mindful hike, where better to go on a guided Shinrin-yoku journey than its birthplace, Japan, where more than 60 officially accredited Shinrin-Yoku forests await.
Universe Mindfulness offers a week-long Shinrin-Yoku experience in untouched natural forest in Nagano with mindfulness in nature training and practice as a focus of the retreat. They also offer sessions with forest therapy practitioners as well as a Shinto pilgrimage route through Togakushi shrine, surrounded by ancient Japanese cedars.
The Sankara Hotel & Spa is a mystical island retreat Yakushima in Japan’s Kagoshima prefecture where subtropical forests and the subalpine climates intersect. Their Forest Therapy guides take guests to explore Yakushima Island’s most powerfully restorative sites. Tied to the country’s ancient spiritual practices, these natural power spots are said to accumulate earth’s natural energy and offer healing energy.
Japan’s wellness retreats are truly unique. Unlike anywhere else on earth, these wellness retreats, whilst boasting luxurious, state-of-the-art facilities, are based on century-old traditions of self-healing, holistic wellbeing and immersion in nature.
A sanctuary of restorative tranquility, Aman Hotel’s Amanemu is an ultra-luxurious Ryokan-inspired Onsen resort nestled amongst the forested hills, mineral-rich hot springs and ancient pilgrim trails of Ise-Shima. Bespoke Immersions based on Japanese traditions and holistic wellbeing incorporate private movement sessions and specialist treatments, immersive spa therapies, hydrotherapy, herbal healing, nutritional support and time in the spa’s mineral-rich pools.
The sublime Hoshinoya Kyoto is a luxurious riverside retreat ln tranquil Arashiyama offering programs aimed to balance both mind and body. Based on the traditions of Eastern medicine, guests are invited to leave behind the pressures of the city and immerse themselves in nature. Acupuncture, breathing exercises, tea and baths of grass roots and tree barks, as well as cultural experiences including Zen meditation and sutra readings are incorporated into programs to restore the flow of vital energy and mental balance.
The island of Okinawa is known as a place of healing, good health and longevity. Today, Halekulani Okinawa, an award-winning luxury hotel located on the main island of Okinawa, offers a comprehensive wellness retreat program that merges signature spa therapies inspired by the ancient healing methods of Japan and Hawaii and infused with traditional Okinawan ingredients with Reash 4 Stance Theory, a method of fitness training based on the biomechanics of movement and motion.
Disclaimer: This article provides general information only, and does not constitute health or medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your health, seek immediate medical attention.