Some little kids dream of building a treehouse. But one Japanese man turned his childhood dream into an adult reality.
Growing up in Tokyo, Satoru Kikugawa frequently visited the family summer home in the countryside, where he learned to appreciate nature. A Japanese children’s book called “I Want a Big Tree” sparked the dream of having a treehouse one day.
However, it wasn’t until decades later that a family trip to Borneo brought urgency and the push to make that dream a reality.
As Kikugawa explains it, he was flying over the island when he saw a large forest cut down and turned into a palm plantation.
“I understand economically that selling lumber brings a stable income, but this impacts carbon levels and the diversity in wildlife. So I thought about how we can save the environment that can still provide income for the locals,” says Kikugawa.
It was the first seed of what is now Treeful, an upscale resort in Okinawa prefecture.
There was just one problem – Kikugawa had absolutely no idea how to build a treehouse. By day, he worked as the chairman of Gala, Inc, a company that creates role-playing video games, among other projects.
He turned to YouTube and began watching instructional videos. It took years, plus plenty of trial and error. He had to teach himself how to use a circular saw and other carpentry tools.
Kikugawa was able to buy some land in forested Okinawa. But instead of choosing the location and then cutting down a tree, he walked around until he saw the right tree, which he hugged. From there, he began to build the house around it.
A family affair
“I didn’t get much support initially when I had this [treehouse] idea,” Kikugawa says. “Many saw me as just a rich man looking to find a hobby.”
But there was someone who believed in Kikugawa’s idea – his daughter Maha. She tells CNN that her father instilled a love of nature in her from childhood.
Maha went on to major in ecosystem science and policy at the University of Miami. Then, she accompanied her dad on trips to Costa Rica and the US to visit similar treehouse projects.
Kikugawa completed the first of his structures, Spiral Treehouse, in 2014. It became the first part of what is now Treeful.
“I look up to my father and his passion for making the world a better place though treehouses,” Maha tells CNN Travel.
“From an early age, my father taught me the importance of nature. Now we are working together through this sustainable treehouse resort to protect it and send a message to others on its values.”
Leaving no trace
Now, there are four treehouses at this resort, each built to ensure as little disturbance to the environment as possible. One, the AeroHouse, was built 1.2 meters above ground level to protect the local wildlife habitat.
Wooden dowels were used instead of metal bolts, and rooms have composting toilets. Well water is sterilized with ultraviolet light, avoiding the use of chlorine.
The floors and ceiling are made of shredded wood so the sunlight can still flow through the treehouse and provide energy to the plants that lie underneath, avoiding disruption to the ecosystem.
In-room decor, like lamps and bookshelves, is also made with stones and branches that have fallen naturally from the forest.
And Donna, the resort goat, keeps the grass maintained.
Building a treehouse, building a legacy
Seven years after Kikugawa started building a treehouse, the resort opened in 2021.
Since then, it has won several design awards and recognition from Guinness World Records for having the world’s lowest treehouse, clocking in at “3.6 m (11 ft 9 in) below the base of the host tree.”
But Treeful’s founder has visions beyond his native Japan.
Kikugawa is working with the Cambodian government on a project to build treehouses inside Phnom Kulen National Park near Siem Reap.
It’s one of several initiatives aimed at combatting illegal logging.
From 2016 to 2021, Cambodia has lost more than 38,000 hectares of forest – nearly 9%, forcing USAID to end its forest protection program after over $100 million dollars in investment.
“I want to grow this business and take it international,” says Kikugawa.
Visiting Treeful requires planning ahead.
It’s a 90-minute drive from Okinawa’s Naha Airport (OKA), or three hours by bus (with one transfer) from the town of Genkawa Iriguchi.
The Treeful staff advises getting there before sunset, as they don’t use artificial lights and the forest can get quite dark.
Treeful Treehouse Sustainable Resort, 2578, Genka, Nago City, Okinawa, 905-1141, Japan.