As the former capital of Japan, Kyoto is a popular tourist destination. It’s wonderful to see people flocking to the area to learn about Japanese culture, but the crowds can be overwhelming. If you’re in the area and need a break, you might check out some of the best places for forest bathing in Kyoto. It can help you reset emotionally and spiritually so that you can continue to make the most of your trip!
It’s been a tough few years for me. Just before the pandemic, my grandmother died and it was traumatic. Traveling and tackling my fear of roller coasters helped me cope — then, the pandemic happened. Over the last three years, I suffered a major knee injury, gained weight, moved to Japan, and lost my mother. It left me emotionally exhausted. No wonder I found myself on a solo trip visiting shrines in Osaka and hiking around Kyoto. It was a great way to heal some of the pain and move forward.
What is Forest Bathing?
A few years ago, I wrote an article on Forbes about the benefits of gardening. While doing research for the piece, I came across several Japanese studies showing that spending just half an hour in the woods could lower heart rates and blood pressure.
Forest bathing, or as the Japanese call it, shinrin-yoku, emerged in the 1980s as both a physiological and psychological exercise. It’s like mindfulness and fitness combined (which is great!). The goal is to spend time in forested areas to reconnect with nature and take a break from our tech-heavy lives.
This ecotherapy has grown in popularity all over the world in recent years. National Geographic even published an article with recommendations for where to do it and Time magazine wrote an in-depth piece on why it’s good for us. You don’t need an article or blog post to tell you it feels good, though. Just get out into a natural landscape and unwind for 30 minutes. You’ll be hooked!
Best Practices for Visiting Sacred Sites in Japan
When you think of Kyoto, you might not immediately associate the city with forest bathing. There are so many amazing historic sites and amazing restaurants to explore. The truth, though, is that it’s nestled within a magnificent, beautifully-preserved natural landscape. Surrounding all of those tourist-filled shrines and temples are lush forests and trails. Here are some tips for enjoying them!
Being respectful is important all across Japan, but it’s especially important in Kyoto. The people in this area are rightfully proud of the city’s history, and they graciously open their doors to share these beautiful, sacred places with the world.
Please show respect when you visit Kyoto. Follow local customs, speak at an appropriate volume, don’t litter, and be grateful. This may be a travel destination for you, but for the people of Japan (myself included!) this city is beloved.
When you’re out in nature, you can be an active participant in your own stress reduction. Rather than listening to music or chatting with companions (which you should avoid or do quietly to allow others to benefit from the peaceful setting), you could try mindfulness.
Focus on your breathing and look at your surroundings. What do you see, feel, hear, or smell? Allow your observations to come and go, flowing through your mind like a river. Examples of thoughts you might have include: “This air smells cool and fresh. The moss on these trees is so green and vibrant. I can hear the birds chirping and branches bristling.” Want to learn more? The University of Washington has put together a guide for mindfulness while forest bathing.
Learn Basic Japanese
You don’t have to be fluent in Japanese, but it’s a good idea to learn some basics. Too many people come to Japan without making any effort. Sign up for lessons on a site like Preply (my favorite tutors are Mamoru and Kanako!), download apps like Duo Lingo, or watch YouTube tutorials. Even if you aren’t perfect, the people you meet will appreciate any effort you make to communicate in the local language.
Know How to Worship
You will come across sacred sites during your time in Kyoto. Please make an effort to show respect and worship appropriately if you choose to visit shrines and temples. Here’s a quick guide:
- Bow at the torii gates before walking through the entrance.
- At shrines: Make an offering. Bow twice. Clap twice. Pray/give thanks. Bow once.
- At temples: Make an offering. Bow once. Put your hands together and pray. Bow once.
- Turn and bow at the torii gates as you leave.
For more information, please read the Etiquette When Visiting Temples and Shrines guide published by the Aichi prefecture’s tourism site.
You’ll see Kibune and Kifune used interchangeably, but I’ll be using Kifune Jinja since that is the name listed on all of the items I bought from this magnificent shrine. It takes a bit of effort to get there, but it’s absolutely worth it. Aside from one other person, I was alone at the shrine and it was such a fantastic experience. I highly recommend getting there as early as possible. Be sure to check the hours of operation, if you’re planning to buy anything!
The stairway leading up to this shrine feels like it’s from another world. It was stunningly beautiful, and the sun was shining so brightly. My heart was so full! While it’s unclear exactly when it was founded, shrine records date back approximately 1300 years. This is an ancient, sacred place.
Yet, there were touches of modern life here too. For example, omikuji (papers that predict your future) at Japanese shrines are often difficult to read. At Kifune Jinja, you grab a seemingly blank page, put it in the water, and then your fortune appears. Then, you can use the QR code to read it in various languages!
After I left Kifune Jinja I started back down the road and realized that there was an entrance to Mt. Kurama right in front of me. If you’re planning to visit the temple, Kurama-dera, please don’t take this route unless you’re prepared for difficult, uphill terrain. If your goal is just to see the temple, go through the front gates (this is the back!).
I should have known when I paid the entry fee and was given a map that I wasn’t at the typical starting point. I’m glad, though. I’d be lying if I said hiking up the uneven path was easy. It was really hard at times, but that’s exactly what I needed. I wanted something physically demanding to push me to my limit. I wanted to lose all energy to repress emotions, and amazingly, it happened for me.
There was a point after I’d reached a summit when the dam broke. My tears flowed and, miraculously, I was completely alone in the forest for a long time. I was able to just let it out, speak out loud to my ancestors, and process my grief and anger. It was a fantastic experience and I’m considering returning every year as sort of a pilgrimage.
Half of the area on the map is mostly untouched woods so it’s perfect for forest bathing in Kyoto. You can relieve stress, release grief, or just escape the concrete jungle for a little while. The other half includes buildings and structures associated with the Kurama-dera Temple, which happens to be the birthplace of Reiki. Having received a Level I Certification years ago, it was pretty cool to be there.
Before planning my visit to Kegon-ji, I’d never heard of it before. Two days before I moved to Japan, I found an old home video my mother filmed in the 90s. I could have never guessed that she’d die just four days later before I could ask her about it.
Determined to figure it out, I took screenshots and sent them to, Mamoru, my amazing Japanese tutor. Unbelievably, even though there weren’t a lot of clues, he was able to figure out where she was! It was surreal to drive up in my taxi, just as she did 30 years ago. Not much had changed which made it even more special.
Kegon-ji is a temple, but it’s most commonly known as Suzumushi-dera. The nickname comes from the bell crickets you hear in the area. The sound they make is really calming and unique. This temple is known for its powerful ability to make wishes come true, so it’s quite popular. I went first thing in the morning and was only among 10-15 other people which was really nice.
After listening to the monk speak, I bought my omamori (amulet) and made my wish — just as I’d seen my mom do in the video! Afterward, I walked around the grounds of the temple. It’s absolutely stunning. There are forested areas, gardens, and tranquil spots to just sit and reflect in nature.
Undoubtedly, you’ve seen pictures of Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Despite being well outside of the city, it’s a popular destination among tourists. I’m including it here because it’s beautiful and well-known, but unless you get up super early to beat the crowds, it may not be worth it.
On my trip, I was able to get there before it got too crazy and it was really enjoyable. The bamboo trees are mind-blowing, so it’s not surprising that so many people share them on social media. In real life, things look a little different than on Instagram, but that shouldn’t stop you from enjoying the benefits of being out in nature.
The surrounding area in Arashiyama is a wonderful place to wander and enjoy forest bathing in Kyoto. So, check out the grove and then explore the neighborhood. I found little shrines and hidden gems along the way and encountered very few humans. I was able to get lost and let my mind take a rest.
Okochi Sanso Villa
While I was meandering through the streets in Arashiyama, I stumbled upon Okochi Sanso Villa. I was thrilled because I’d actually had this on my itinerary but had forgotten entirely. At the gate, I was surprised by the 1,000 yen admission fee — and I almost walked away — but I’m so glad I turned around and went in. I’ve seen other articles out there on Inside Kyoto and Japan Travel imploring visitors to just pay to get in, so I’ll do the same. Just. Do. It.
The estate belonged to film actor, Okochi Denjiro (1898-1962) and now it’s open to the public. The grounds of Okochi Sanso Villa are so impressive, you’ll think you’re at an imperial palace. I thoroughly enjoyed the landscape which included a variety of vegetation and architecture. At the top, I was able to look out over the city and take some deep breaths.
When you pay for admission, you’re given a ticket for tea. I wasn’t exactly sure what this meant until I found the Tea House. As I walked up, I was greeted and asked for my ticket. Then, I chose a seat at an outside table and waited. Within three minutes, I was given a sweet treat and a cup of hot, fresh matcha. Every sip soothed my soul.
Fushimi Inari Taisha
Everyone goes to Fushimi Inari Taisha to see the bright, vermillion torii gates, but this shrine also offers excellent opportunities for forest bathing in Kyoto. You’ll definitely get your exercise if you continue up the path, but I’ll be honest — I had to give up before I reached the top. I’m determined to get there though!
In the lower area of Fushimi Inari Taisha’s grounds, there are many buildings and structures. It’s easy to find drinks, souvenirs, and bathrooms, as needed. So, if you need anything, you should probably do it before you start climbing.
While a lot of my time was spent watching my footing (which was good because it kept my mind from thinking about stressful things!), there were plenty of places to pause and appreciate nature. You’ll find little groves, bodies of water, and small shrines along the path so take a moment to look around. If you can, get there early in the morning because the crowds can be pretty unbearable.
Enjoy Nature & Forest Bathing in Kyoto
It’s far from complete, but I hope you enjoyed this guide to forest bathing in Kyoto. The destination has a lot to offer beyond the shrines, temples, and restaurants. I’ve been there several times, and on this most recent trip, I was able to avoid the city almost the entire time. It felt really good and gave me yet another way to pay respect to this historic city. I can’t wait to do it again!