On an unassuming street minutes away from Tokyo’s Sumida River, the Ozeki Lab construction team is hard at work transforming a 50-year-old, broken-down Japanese apartment into a multi-residential “sharehouse.” Inspired by his travels and the great outdoors, Tokyo-born-and-raised Koji Ozeki designs and creates unique living establishments, restaurants and even a café a treehouse, all while making a conscious effort to use all-natural materials.
It was actually through a surprise discovery of the Nanjya Monjya Treehouse Café in my local neighborhood that led me to Ozeki Lab and, soon after, I had the opportunity to meet Ozeki at the construction site of his sixth sharehouse.
Laid back with an easily recognizable pointed goatee, Ozeki points out the half-finished second floor deck that will eventually be a BBQ co-space area for future residents, although it currently holds bright construction tarp and a couple of surfboards on the side.
He half-jokes that he never plans out his projects—he just thinks up the interior structure of the building as he creates and tries to use recycled materials as much as possible and avoid plastic.
Being an avid freestyle skier and having even entered several mogul contests, Ozeki took a ski trip to Utah during his university days and was astounded by the beauty of the mountains and the surrounding nature. This moment triggered his decision to start his own company—a business where he could travel independently instead of being cooped up in an office with a limited number of vacation days a year.
Shortly after working in the trading and import business and graduating from architecture university, he started his own izakaya (Japanese-style pub) for a steadier income. Little did he know this idea would set off a string of future projects.
After looking into the cost of hiring a professional to build his restaurant, Ozeki figured he could design and create for himself and started his first construction project, working on everything from carpentry and layout to interior design and painting. The restaurant is still operating today and is located near Keio University.
Ozeki loved the building experience and the amount of personal creativity that went into it, so much so, that he continued constructing. After working on several restaurant-related projects, it was time to add a new project: refurbishing homes.
About eight years ago, he started building sharehouses; buying deteriorating homes in the city and turning them into brand-new, dorm-like establishments for working adults in their 30s. The only sharehouse built from scratch is the one below the Nanjya Monjya Treehouse Café in Yokohama.
“The land there was so cheap because it was on a steep slope with bamboo growing wild. Plus there was this giant tree right in the middle,” Ozeki laughs.
The area is also on a narrow road where there is no way for construction trucks to drive through. While most people were turned off by these unfortunate factors, Ozeki saw this situation as a challenge. He noticed all the neighboring houses were old Japanese homes, built during a time when there was limited equipment, and he wanted to prove you don’t need machinery to construct.
In 2012, the Nanjya Monjya Treehouse Café and a new sharehouse built around the base of the tree opened. As if your childhood imagination came to life, this treehouse is a snug and quirky café with indoor and balcony seating and even a small second floor that can only be accessed via a staircase in the kitchen.
Like Ozeki’s other projects, being inside surrounded by the natural architecture makes you temporarily forget you’re in the heart of the city. Like it’s straight out of a children’s book, the treehouse attracts raccoons, cats and other critters in late evenings or early mornings, providing shelter and a hope for some leftover bites.
The café is located near Mitsuzawa Shimocho Station and open Mondays to Saturdays from noon to 5:30 p.m. (Closed on Sundays and during poor weather).
Today, Ozeki is living his dream of traveling the world, gaining inspiration from his recent visits to Alaska, Portugal and parts of Asia while working on three to four construction projects a year. He also surfs in Chiba and, in the winter, he goes to his winter home in Gunma to enjoy alpine living and chasing fresh powder.
When asked what his life motto is, Ozeki states confidently, “Genkai wo sukoshi demo koeru chousen,” which translates to “Challenge yourself to overcome your limits.” His life certainly reflects that, as he continues to venture into new directions.
“When I was working on restaurant construction, it was stable but repetitive. Now, increasing the number of sharehouses is easy and safe, but I want to work on hotel and B&B construction in the future. I always want to challenge myself with something new,” he said.