Defining Gankoyama is a tough task; it is a community, an experiment and a getaway all at once. Gankoyama’s definition is not the only thing “up in the air.” Everything else is too. In fact, Gankoyama is Japan’s first tree house village.
Off the grid, off the ground
Gankoyama was established in 1998 by Yoshinori Hiraga. “Back when we were kids,” says Hiraga (or “Master” as he prefers to be called), “we used to build and play in ‘secret bases’ (秘密基地 ) out in the mountains. I initially started Gankoyama to bring back all the fun I used to have as a child.” So Gankoyama was born in the lush mountains of Chiba’s Boso Peninsula, another “secret base” for the Master to reign over.
What began as a private playground soon evolved into an ecological experiment in sustainability, as Master and his helpers tinkered with renewable energy sources to see just how self-sufficient they could make Gankoyama. The result is a village completely off the grid.
There’s no plumbing, no wiring or gas – everything is powered by a combination of solar and wind, and water is collected naturally or bought at the store. Wood is chopped by hand, and food is cooked by campfire. It’s no-nonsense, down-to-earth stuff at Gankoyama. It is surrounded by the deep, silent forest, and the natural energy is palpable; energy the folks at Gankoyama utilize with aplomb. Today Gankoyama consists of a spacious main tree house which serves as a welcome center and recreation hall, with 11 guest tree houses and more on the way. The wood is sourced through local carpenters and the tree houses are put together by the Master, a handy carpenter himself. “No nails are used for these tree houses,” he tells me. “They are all built with traditional Japanese carpentry techniques.” He shows me the interlocking cuts in the wood where they slot together.
“We can take them apart just as easily as we can build them.” He said. Each tree house is clean and waterproof and can comfortably sleep up to three adults. The two-tiered welcome center could easily fit an entire class. Sleeping bags and blankets are available for rental, but he suggests you bring your own.
Summer is the busiest time of year. “Families and school groups visit all the time,” he says. “We used to get a lot of environmentally conscious people, but all sorts of people come now.” He says people come from the city to relax, and he hopes that they will take back with them an increased awareness of the world’s environmental problems and an appreciation of Japan’s natural beauty.
If you spend a night or two at Gankoyama, you’ll undoubtedly discover Hiraga and his team barking up all the right trees in this natural getaway.
Build your own tree house
Gankoyama offers several courses geared toward families and groups, and among these courses is an interesting activity called tree house building. Tree house building is just that – getting together with your family or friends and building a tree house just like the ones Hiraga has lovingly constructed. The instructors, including Hiraga, lead the activity, passing on the eco-friendly techniques and carpentry skills needed to put up a sturdy and livable tree house.
Tree house building is just that – getting together with your family or friends and building a tree house just like the ones Hiraga has lovingly constructed. The instructors, including Hiraga, lead the activity, passing on the eco-friendly techniques and carpentry skills needed to put up a sturdy and livable tree house.
What happens to your tree houses once they are built? In reality, the hastily thrown-together tree houses tend to leak and let in mosquitoes, so Hiraga and the gang tear them down and use the raw materials again. The whole activity is a lot of fun and, although your sweat and toil will be demolished after you leave, Hiraga assuredly says its just part of the nature of Gankoyama.
Tree house building aside, Gankoyama offers an activity guaranteed to appeal to young boys (and old ones too), none other than making your own bow and arrows. “Let’s shoot each other,” Hiraga apparently jokes as we finish carving and stringing our bamboo bows which have the strength to fling an arrow more than 50 meters. The gleam in his eye, to this day, makes me wonder if he was serious or not.
This childish enthusiasm and sense of adventure is something that shines through in everything Hiraga tries to impart to his visitors. From explaining which wild plants are edible to riding the zip-line that slashes down the middle of the camp, the passion and excitement Master feels about the great outdoors is infectious.
To ensure you have a great time, there is a plethora of other activities to choose from at Gankoyama. For the more vigorous folk, hiking and mountain-biking trails are available. If you want to relax with a book in the shade, climb into one of the hammocks strung up in the trees.
Crafts are available for those who want to take home a piece of their own wobbly furniture, and all those involved have the opportunity to create (and smoke) their own pizza.
Contact Hiraga about available courses for families and groups and get to Gankoyama for an unforgettable weekend among the trees in Chiba.
By Train (from Tokyo): Sazanami Express to Iwai Station. You can also take the Keiyo Line to Soga, then the Uchibo Line to Iwai Station. Hiraga will pick you up at Iwai Station.
By Car: It takes about an hour and a half to two hours from Tokyo by car if you use the Tokyo Aqua Line and Tateyama Road. Get off Tateyama Road at the Kyonan Tomiyama Interchange (I.C.) exit. Continue in the direction of Highway Oasis Furari.
Once you get to the Furari Junction, turn left onto Route 89. Continue driving along Route 89 for about 20 minutes toward Route 410. Just before you get to Route 410, there is a very small grocery shop on the left (called Asakura Shoten). The road next to the grocery store runs uphill and leads to Gankoyama (five minutes). When you see the tree houses on the left side of the road, you know you’ve arrived at Gankoyama.
Gankoyama Tree House Village
218-1 Oi, Minami-boso-shi, Chiba-ken