For travellers interested in mindfulness and wellness, there is arguably no better destination than Japan. Over many centuries, the Japanese have developed a multitude of techniques for quieting the mind, cultivating inner peace and promoting good health. In this article, we explore some of the ancient practices that are still used today to promote mental and physical well-being in Japan.
Zen Buddhism was brought to Japan from China sometime in the 12th century and has since developed its own unique character. Seated meditation, known as Zazen, is usually practiced in groups and aims to clear the mind of all distractions. Visitors to Kyoto can participate in a meditation session with a Zen monk, learning about the spiritual tradition and experiencing the therapeutic benefits firsthand. One particular tool used in Japanese Zen meditation that often surprises travellers is a long flat stick known as a keisaku. The keisaku is used to strike the meditator’s back or shoulders to keep them awake and test their concentration.
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Hot Spring Onsen
Bathing in hot volcanic springs has been practiced in Japan for centuries and is believed to have many therapeutic effects, such as soothing aches and pains, as well as improving circulation. The minerals from volcanic springs are also believed to be beneficial for the skin. Travellers can stay in a traditional Ryokan inn that specializes in different onsen treatments, similar to a spa retreat.
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The traditional Japanese tea ceremony is heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism and can be considered a form of meditation. Besides the health benefits of green tea, the ceremony is also designed to help calm the nerves and increase concentration. One of the key elements of the tea ceremony is the concept of wabi-sabi: the beauty of simple and imperfect things. Surrounding yourself with minimalist and rustic beauty is meant to have a positive effect on the mind.
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Bonsai and Zen Gardens
Japanese gardens have often been praised as some of the most beautiful in the world. Influenced by Buddhist philosophy, the traditional Japanese garden is meant to have a relaxing effect on the mind and gardening in itself can be seen as a form of mindfulness. Zen gardens are known for the symbolic patterns raked in sand and stone, which are created in a ritualistic manner. The bonsai tree is also symbolic of wabi-sabi and Zen Buddhist principles.
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Last but not least is the Japanese culinary tradition, which is widely considered one of the healthiest of any industrialized society. With a good balance of grains, vegetables and fresh seafood, Japanese cuisine is seen as a contributing factor to the longevity, reduced risk of cardiovacular disease and low rates of obesity among Japanese people.