Chiba tree house village latest in eco-tourism

By Taro Fujimoto

Forget about 5-star hotels. Try spending the night in a tree house. Not only is it fun but it offers a realistic way to practice “eco tourism” and “co-existence with nature” – phrases which are often bandied about in our daily conversation. Since 1998, Gankoyama Tree House Village has been providing people with the opportunity to think of nature and our modern life in terms of effective use of forest resources.

Gankoyama is located in the middle of the Boso Peninsula in Chiba, about two hours by car from central Tokyo. About 2,500 people a year visit the 12,000 square meters of the lower mountainous camping area to learn outdoor skills. Among the outdoor programs, the Tree House Master program, in which participants learn how to build tree houses in two days, has been the most popular, attracting lots of media attention. Every program requires reservations in advance. The tree house-building tour is the only one of its kind in the world. All of Gankoyama’s energy needs are provided by solar panels and a wind generator; no electricity is used.

In March, Gankoyama started to actively accept foreign visitors, launching its English-language website. Participants can enjoy the outdoor workshop skills for 8,000 yen and tree house building for 28,000 yen per person. Fees for families and groups are cheaper.

“The primary purpose at Gankoyama is to provide people with an opportunity to think about the most effective use of forest resources in Japan,” says owner Yoshinori Hiraga, 49.

Hiraga, who was born in Tokyo and currently runs an air conditioning company in Yokohama, says he found the majority of mountains in Japan, which have been forested since the pre-modern era, neglected as a result of depopulation and an increase in imported cheaper wooden materials from abroad. “Since I used to play in the mountains when I was small, I wanted to revive forest resources. I just love mountains,” says Hiraga.

Learning how to co-exist with nature

Through the Tree House Master program, he wants participants to understand the fact that Japanese for a long time incorporated nature into their daily lives, including effective use of forests with regular maintenance, but they don’t do it so much anymore. Hiraga is hopeful that more Japanese will pay attention to their traditional concept of how to co-exist with nature. “Foreigners, especially those from Europe and the United States, are much more aware of effective use of forest resources and natural energy generation than Japanese.”

After operating Gankoyama for 10 years, Hiraga says he has learned that Japanese adults need someone’s help to enjoy themselves in nature. “Westerners enjoy themselves here as if they were kids. I just tell them the basic rules here in English and some gestures. They are usually happy on their own without us. If you need a tour guide, then you won’t enjoy yourself here.”

As an external member of a local city council for the environment and a guest invited by a non-governmental organization (NGO), he has visited the U.S. to research environmental policies around the world.

“I think in Western countries, people have tried to artificially control nature. They tend to ‘do something in nature,’ which is how they enjoy themselves here,” said Hiraga. “In Japan, nature has always been a part of our life. Unfortunately, one of the reasons why Japanese are indifferent to nature now is that they take it for granted.”

He says the key phrase “sustainable life” is more familiar to Westerners than Japanese. “The majority of Japanese have no idea what that concept means.”

As a business, Gankoyama has been successful since its launch. The Japanese government approved Gankoyama as a good plan for effective use of forest resources. On weekends, people from all over the country visit and stay there. During the summer holiday season, Gankoyama is always full of visitors.

However, Hiraga recalls how he erred in his prediction for environment-related trends in Japan when he was launching Gankoyama in 1998: “I thought the so-called environment market would be much bigger in Japan. But in fact, the government and society shifted its focus to more monetary things, such as increase in exports and deregulation of financial markets. Everybody wanted to know how to make money. Now we see in many developed countries that environmental polices are becoming the top priority.”

'Experience market' for children

What helped Gankoyama’s success was the growing demand in the ‘experience market’ for children, Hiraga says. “Even if mothers don’t know the concept of ‘sustainable life,’ they know instinctively that children need experience in nature.” After children, foreigners in Japan are the second largest potential market.

“‘Eco’ is something existing in our daily life. Some philosophical trends like LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) and Slow Life have already come and gone and nobody talks about them anymore. Eco should mean ‘sustainable.’” Hiraga says he just wants more people to enjoy nature in the way that children used to play in the mountains in the past.

Hiraga is often asked to hold seminars nationwide. Sharp Corp, for example, donated its solar panels for solar power generation to Gankoyama and holds CSR (corporate social responsibility) seminars in Gankoyama. Hiraga says Gankoyama has proved it is a profitable business model to revive forests in Japan, and he hopes young people will launch similar businesses.

Spending almost all of his time in Gankoyama, Hiraga is dedicated to providing people with opportunities to think of how they can live with the nature. Those who know Hiraga say he is almost a kid when building the tree house.

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