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Sunday, July 15, 2012

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Woodsman: Takashi Kobayashi, Japan's pioneer tree-house maker, with one of his constructions at Mount Takao, Tokyo. SATOKO KAWASAKI

WEEK 3

Life up in the treetops


Staff writer

Imagine strolling through a forest and coming across a hut supported by four trees 8 meters off the ground. With its triangular roof, stained-glass door panels and timber decking, at first sight it's like something in a fairyland.

News photo
Rope work: Participants in a tree-house workshop learn how to climb really tall trees at Mount Takao. SATOKO KAWASAKI

This is, however, the latest lofty abode built by Takashi Kobayashi, Japan's pioneer tree-house creator. Completed on June 20, the hut in a valley in Takikawa, Hokkaido, is the fruit of cooperation between Kobayashi and Solaputi Kids Camp, an organization that runs a camping facility there for children with life-threatening diseases.

"There are children who have never played outdoors because they have to stay in hospital or wear breathing or other medical tubes. This tree house is for such children," Kobayashi said in a recent interview with The Japan Times.

He explained that the hut is spacious enough for kids in wheelchairs or on stretchers along with medical staff from the organization — and that it is accessible horizontally via a bridge.

"I hope the children enjoy the view from up in the trees and the way the suspension bridge swings, too," Kobayashi enthused with a childlike glint in his eye.

He also explained that the idea for the tree house came from the founder of the camping organization, Ryota Hosoya, who is also a vice director and pediatrician at St. Luke's International Hospital in Tokyo.

"Dr. Hosoya told me that the children's parents, and the medical staff involved, tend to be very serious," the 54-year-old said. "But he stressed that people need to consider the element of play for the children and he said he'd like me to work with him for the kids."

After scouting around in 2010, Kobayashi found a suitable site with four adjacent Japanese poplar trees for support, and the following year he began putting together the base of the house. Then, this spring, construction began in earnest, with the house designed to ensure it would bear the weight of Hokkaido's heavy annual snowfalls — and with a wood-burning stove installed for warmth.

"And in June it was finally done and is set to be officially opened in August," said self-taught Kobayashi, a native of Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture, who is neither a trained architect nor carpenter, though he has been building tree houses since he was 34.

"In my childhood," he explained, "I loved watching TV travel and nature documentaries, and I wanted to do insect research in the Amazon. But I wasn't good at science so I studied TV broadcasting at university."

That led to a job producing TV programs, but Kobayashi soon found it didn't suit him, so he quit and started traveling in Asia, Africa and Europe for several months at a time. When he ran out money, he'd return to Japan and do part-time jobs to top up his funds, and one time he started selling things at flea markets in Tokyo.

Through his travels, Kobayashi had become good at speaking English, and when some used-clothes dealers at the flea markets realized this, they commissioned him to go and buy clothes in the United States for them to sell in Tokyo.

Around the same time, Kobayashi often visited an antique shop in Tokyo's trendy Harajuku district, where he found an enamel sign showing a hut in a pine tree. Because he loved the sign, the shop owner gave it to him — and also suggested that he open a used-clothes store in a vacant premises next to hers. So he did.

However, after about 18 months Kobayashi got tired of selling used clothes and, as he was thinking what to do next, he said his eye fell on that enamel sign of a tree house. Inspired by this, he built a bar around a tree on his shop's site — and in 1992 that opened. It was named Escape.

"I found it exciting that the tree exists inside the room. The tree moved in the wind and rainwater came into the room," the nature lover said.

While running the bar and shop, in 1994 Kobayashi went to Boston, Massachusetts, to buy used clothes. While he was there he stumbled across a new book titled "Treehouses" written by an American tree-house builder named Peter Nelson.

"In the book, Nelson wrote the stories of many people who had built tree houses. I found there were similarities between the minds of those people and my own," he said. He bought the book and returned to Tokyo.

Luckily, Kobayashi learned through an outdoors magazine that Nelson was coming to Japan the following year, in the spring of 1995, to build a tree house. After Kobayashi contacted the magazine's publisher for help in contacting Nelson, the publisher asked him to work as the interpreter as Nelson built the tree house in Tochigi Prefecture.

"I met Nelson and told him I had his book and had built my own tree house, and he asked me to assist him on that project," Kobayashi said. During his stay in Japan, Nelson visited Kobayashi's tree house in Harajuku and loved it.

"Nelson also told me he was organizing the first World Treehouse Conference that November in Oregon, and he said, 'You should come as the representative of Japanese tree-house builders ! So I did."

"The event was held at a kind of sacred place for hippies in the mountains, and I felt very close to the tree houses I saw there, and realized they were a kind of symbol of primitivism," Kobayashi said.

While he was there, he made an intensive study of trees, had training to climb forest giants as high as 80 meters — and joined in on the construction of several tree houses.

After that, when he returned to Japan, Kobayashi started building tree houses that aren't actual residences but huts where people can stay for leisure. Then, in 2000, he formed an organization named Japan Treehouse Network, which promotes tree houses by holding construction workshops and facilitates networking between people who enjoy building and hanging out in tree houses.

Then another of those lucky moments befell Kobayashi in 2005, when he was contacted by the huge Dentsu advertising company and asked to build a tree house to be the main feature of a TV commercial for Nescafe coffee. With the ¥20 million he would earn for that, Kobayashi started a firm named Tree House Creations Co., whose first project was to build the artistic, cocoon-like tree house he designed for the commercial — complete with a wooden staircase circling the oak tree he'd selected in the wide open spaces of Kamishihoro, Hokkaido.

"The commercial, which ran in 2006, let viewers understand easily what a tree house is. Before that, people never understood what I was creating and they probably thought of me as a rather strange man," Kobayashi said — adding that since then he has received an increasing number of requests to build tree houses. "Today, the tree house has become a kind of icon of LOHAS (lifestyle of health and sustainability)," he said.

Currently, Kobayashi designs and builds four or five tree houses a year — whether for private use, for public parks, schools or resort hotels. In addition, he creates some temporary tree houses for events.

As for costs, Kobayashi said the price of a tree house can range from several hundred thousand yen to ¥10 million, depending on the interiors and the facilities.

But tree houses aren't about spending or saving money — they're about "a smallness that's akin to the aesthetic of a tea-ceremony room," as Kobayashi lyrically put it.

Hundreds of years ago, even samurai entering that small room had to take off their swords to make everyone there equal. "It's the same in a tree house, said Kobayashi. "Everyone enjoys the scenery together and can get rid of ordinary life, which is anyway too loaded down with information and other things.

"In fact," Kobayashi remarked with considerable candor, "a tree house is not a daily necessity — and it's even a rather useless thing in our capitalistic world. But I believe it is a big plus to have something useless in society."

Takashi Kobayashi's Japan Tree House Network holds events across Japan. For more information, go to www.treehouse.jp.


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