Nature journaling has become a popular way for city dwellers and other time-poor people to engage with nature while improving mental health, cultivating curiosity and enriching their minds.

For the unfamiliar, it is a way of connecting to nature by organizing your observations, questions, explanations and discoveries in the pages of a notebook.

Eriko Kobayashi, a nature journaling instructor, holds a sketchbook in September 2023 in Ino, Kochi Prefecture. (Kyodo)

The coronavirus pandemic helped proliferate the practice via online seminars. And more and more people are heading outdoors to gain real-life experiences, which experts say can help reduce stress, improve cognitive function and better equip people to handle challenges in their daily lives.

To find out what nature journaling is all about, Kyodo News visited a retreat run by Eriko Kobayashi, 53, Japan's only instructor and leading proponent of the practice which originated in the United States, for a one-on-one session in Ino, a small town located in Kochi Prefecture, western Japan.

Unlike fieldwork, the main purpose of which is conducting scientific surveys, it can be enjoyed at one's leisure and with a sense of playfulness, Kobayashi explained. Simply put, "It is a tool to connect yourself to nature," she said.

There are few required materials. Most important is a notebook with pens and pencils, a ruler and a magnifying glass.

The practice starts with a stroll through nature. Measure objects with a ruler, or express yourself in haiku, poetry or art. No matter how good or bad your drawings, it is the process that matters rather than the result, Kobayashi says.

In early October, the seminar began in the wooded area with a gentle autumn breeze setting the stage for the task at hand. First, we wrote down the date, weather and location.

"Imagine zooming in from a globe" to gain context, Kobayashi suggested, as she showed the location on a map.

A sketch of leaves observed by Eriko Kobayashi, is pictured in Ino, Kochi Prefecture, on Oct. 4, 2023. (Kyodo)

After three minutes of meditation, we listened and focused on the surrounding sounds -- the buzzing of insects, the chirping of birds. We observed the fallen leaves, drawing sketches of their various features in our notebooks. We give titles to our journal entries and the exercise ends.

Sharpening the senses by immersing oneself in the observed objects in front of one's eyes improves concentration and memory, says Kobayashi. Becoming aware of and thinking about the findings and questions that arise is a type of "brain training," she adds.

Nature journaling was conceived by Clare Walker Leslie, a naturalist from the United States. It has diverse uses, including incorporation into homeschooling and psychotherapy. A big reason for the recent increase in interest was more people looking for ways to unwind after long periods stuck at home during the pandemic.

Nature journaling clubs have sprung up in Canada, Germany and other countries. According to Kobayashi, there are now about 140 clubs worldwide.

Eriko Kobayashi, a teacher of nature journaling, sketches a leaf she observed in Ino, Kochi Prefecture, on Oct. 4, 2023. (Kyodo)

Originally from Tokyo, Kobayashi was introduced to the practice when she stumbled across "Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You," one of several books written by Leslie, on the internet.

"It's interesting to notice things that you didn't see before," says Kobayashi, who created a Japanese nature journaling club in 2018. In the beginning, she would only add a few words to pictures she would sketch outdoors. But before long, she was hooked and began documenting more and more details.

Since moving to Ino in 2020, she has conducted nature journaling seminars as well as training for teachers on the island of Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands of Japan.

She hopes that "through nature journaling, there will be more opportunities for people to notice and question things."

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