The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened awareness of the global environmental crisis and inspired people to spend more time in nature. Maha Kikugawa, COO and co-founder of Treeful Treehouse, a sustainable resort in Okinawa that opened in August, is hoping the change in people’s perspectives and desires will support her fledgling business.
With the concept of “sustainable treehouse resort,” her Treeful Treehouse comprises AeroHouse and Spiral Treehouse, both of which sit in and around the branches of trees in Nago, mainland Okinawa. This approach is designed to limit disruption to the area’s plentiful flora and fauna, which can continue living below.
The resort is powered by electricity generated by its solar energy plant, even producing more power than it uses. Water for showering is boiled at night and used during the day, while drinking water is drawn from the nearby Genka river and sterilized by ultraviolet rays rather than chlorine.
As the unique accommodation concludes its first summer season, we asked Kikugawa what drove her to launch the business, why its concept is so important and what lessons she has learned from her experiences.
What is at the core of Treeful Treehouse?
It promotes sustainability in action and shows guests how to coexist with nature.
Why is sustainability such a key part of your offering?
The treehouse itself is a carbon negative creation that makes sustainable society possible, and we want guests to understand the importance of coexistence with nature. Society needs to understand sustainability in an urgent but positive way, and our treehouse resort offers the appropriate experience.
What inspired you to set up the resort?
It has been my father’s dream to build a treehouse since he was a child, and it is my life purpose to give back to nature somehow, so I helped him build the treehouses and make a resort out of it.
Have you always been entrepreneurial?
I was taught to think outside the box since I was a child. It was my decision to study abroad in the U.S. for high school and university, and I always enjoyed creating something from zero, such as making communities, clubs and a company from scratch. I speak Japanese, English and Spanish, as I studied abroad in the Galapagos Islands to learn about ecosystem science and environmental science when I was at university in the U.S.
What other activities and projects are you involved in?
I am a legacy ambassador of the fitness brand lululemon. I was chosen because I co-founded a fitness community called SOGO Fitness, which now has more than 6,500 members, and community was an important aspect of the brand. Fitness and yoga are things I enjoy and use as relaxation tools outside of work. I also was a professional event planner before taking up my current role.
What have you learned so far in setting up and running the business?
First of all, I learned how difficult it is to build a treehouse with my own hands, helping my father. Our treehouses are built to survive typhoons and earthquakes, with the same safety systems as NASA.
As for operations, it was my first time making a hotel so I thought it was impossible at first, especially as it was in the middle of a forest. But I used to be an event organizer, so I thought of welcoming guests like having mini events and applied the skills I had to hotel-making.
After all, nothing will go right in the beginning and everything is trial and error. I learned to be patient, to improve something every day and to enjoy the creation process of it, even with the hardships. Who in their lifetime gets to build a treehouse in the forest and make it into a resort?
I also learned that community and local support is important. It took us seven years to finally open our hotel, but we built great relationships with the surrounding community by showing that we are there to save nature authentically, so the long wait was worth it.
What's a typical day at the resort for you?
8 a.m.: Leave home for the treehouse. It takes 1.5 hours to commute.
9:30 a.m.: Arrive at the treehouse. Our team starts the day by doing a program of radio calisthenics (rajio taiso) outside. I feed our grass-mower goat.
9:35 a.m.: I am in charge of operations, marketing and interior design, which are all different areas of work. First I write out all the tasks and rank them by priority. I start with the task that requires the most focus: editing the backend of the hotel reservation system and replying to emails from clients and customers. I try to make work systems that motivate workers.
10:30 a.m.: I double-check accommodation details and make sure our resort and staff are ready to welcome the guests. I keep working on improving guest experiences.
11:30 a.m.: I answer interview requests from the media or do photo shoots for media or social media.
12 p.m.: Lunch with everyone.
1 p.m.: Marketing and PR strategy-making.
2 p.m.: Designing the interior of a new treehouse.
3 p.m.: Preparing social media and email campaigns.
4 p.m.: Fixing and making improvements on the website; Zoom meeting with accountants.
5 p.m.: Creating new collaboration projects with other brands.
5:30 p.m.: Leave the treehouse.
How do you hope to make an impact in Japan’s tourism industry?
With the influence of COVID, people feel the need to get out and be in nature more than they want a typical hotel stay in a city. With this change of interest, I wish to direct them to sustainable tourism, specifically to treehouses that have negative carbon footprints in the ecosystem in the short term and let people use off-grid energy to sustain themselves in the long term. Nature being saved while people have fun — what more can we ask for?
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