Off the grid, off the ground
27 January 2016, Claire Lock, Social Media Manager, Nature Play SA
“Back when we were kids, we used to build and play in ‘secret bases’ out in the mountains. I initially started Gankoyama to bring back all the fun I used to have as a child.”
Yoshinori Hiraga, ‘Master’ and founder of Gankoyama Tree House Village (as quoted in Outdoor Japan Magazine)
Located in the mountainous countryside of Boso Peninsula, on Japan’s main island of Honshu, Gankoyama is a sustainable treehouse village and unique nature play experience we were fortunate to enjoy on our recent family adventures to the enchanting archipelago nation.
Described by Lonely Planet as ‘a rustic hamlet of simple loghouses built on platforms amid the soaring cedars’, Gankoyama was established in 1998 and functions as an eco-village for people to learn and experience Japanese forest culture and sustainable lifestyles. The treehouse village is run ‘off the grid, off the ground’, with power supplied through solar and some wind generation; water sourced from local mountain streams; and composting toilet and food systems in effect.
Our family of four –children, Milla (7) and Ari (3), husband, Dave, and I – booked a two-day ‘forestry survival skills’ course to experience ‘Japanese forest culture while enjoy[ing] various activities like making handicraft, learning rope tying and cooking in a wood-fired oven’. Given that our stay was in the heart of Japanese winter, we were to be the only guests residing in the treetops that weekend (note: thermal-clad, multi-layered ones at that!).
We departed from the city of Chiba by train early on a Saturday morning, watching compact highrises and colour-popping billboards flick past before transitioning to rural and natural scenes capturing coastal townships, bird-speckled rocky shores, farming lands, and forest-clad mountains.
Master Gankoyama collected us from the coastal train station of Iwai, approximately half an hour from the treehouse village. Driving through the countryside, we delighted in frequent sightings of soaring eagles set against a clear winter sky while Master explained fauna of the village surrounds included deer, wild boar, racoons, and rabbits – and our wild children, of course! Through Master’s English skills, we quickly established common interest and agreement on importance of nature and exploration for children, and adults, cemented with mutual admiration of the works and words of Rachel Carson and Richard Louv.
As we began our ascent up the mountain to village, Master paused to point out fruit-laden orange trees along the roadside and the Gankoyama’s terraced rice paddies. He explained the process and timing for planting and harvesting the rice, which feeds treehouse guests throughout the year and would be served at our evening meal. Arriving at the treehouse village, we eagerly followed a narrowing forest trail, passing Gankoyama’s sheltered cooking and dining hut, before coming to a central log cabin, an assortment of treehouses, and timber platforms within a panoramic expanse of Japanese cedar trees.
As Master prepared our treehouse for the night, we were granted free time for lunch, settling in, and exploring. We based ourselves at a picnic table over-looking a mountain valley patch-worked in moss and deep greens, browns and auburn (which Master later explained were characterised by bamboo forest, Japanese cedars, and deciduous trees bare or semi-denuded of leaves): a forest environment so different to our natural landscapes back home in South Australia. The kids and Dave were instantly drawn to the collection of handmade bows and arrows lying on the table, testing their archery skills from our hillside vantage before the kids set out to discover swings crafted from bamboo and rope idyllically hanging from grand trees situated under the watch of our treehouse.
Following free time, Master took us for a guided nature walk through the village surrounds, pointing out the different stages of forest growth and development. Descending into the old growth forest, Milla spied a long rope hanging from a fastening high within a tree, and we eagerly waived our rights to insurance claims to swing from the hill slope out into the forest. Dave, Milla, and I took turns: supporting foot held straight, hands holding tight on rope knots, grounded leg releasing to cast out and across the forest floor. There were hoots of delight – intoned with shades of fear – as our adventurous play delivered an exhilarating sense of freedom as we soared within the forest canopy.
The rope swing was somewhat reluctantly put aside to continue along the forest trails, where we learnt about different elements of the natural environment from Master, through sight, sound, smell, and touch. We inhaled the aroma of cinnamon cut from a wild tree and lingered over the scent of twigs used for brewing mountain tea. We avoided the woody thorns of the plant used to make tempura, a plant whose leaves are also favoured by the forest deer. We learnt of a myriad of uses for bamboo, and listened to the spiritual importance and philosophy of nature and the mountains to Master and Japanese forest culture.
While the adults talked, Milla and Ari played around us and through the forest. They ran wildly along the path, feeling and observing the alien plant life, and engaging in a game of tiger that saw Ari disappearing behind trees, peering from cedar trunks, and leaping upon the tour party with a ferocious three-year old growl that earned him the weekend title of ‘Tiger’.
As the afternoon progressed, we stationed ourselves at the cooking hut for practical activities starting with Japanese wood chopping techniques. The two children were assisted to learn and use an axe for the wood chopping, and it was then Dave’s assigned responsibility to maintain the wood stack for our fire camp stoves over the weekend. Master then led an arrow-construction session, commencing with a trunk of fresh bamboo and utilising various tools including small handsaws and machete. The wood was crafted into chopstick-width pieces, blunted arrow tips carved, and cardboard arrow feathers fashioned and fastened. With arrows complete, young and old strode up the hill to test out the wares on the existing bamboo bows. Deployed arrows were quickly chased down the hill for collection and reuse, a sequence that sustained until dusk.
Upon nightfall, we followed Master into the forest, using torches and headlights to collect small, dried, Japanese cedar branches. Master showed us how to prepare the fire for the cooking stoves, and then proceeded to teach Milla how ‘to have a conversation’ with fire: when the fire required fanning of the flames and the best technique to achieve this. As little Tiger slept, Milla proceeded as Chief Fire Converser, a role she relished for the evening and remainder of the weekend.
After a multi-course camp-cooked meal, including the flavoursome Gankoyama rice and a nightcap of local sake for the adults, we walked the forest trail by torchlight to our treehouse for the night. Sleeping in the treehouse in the coldest time of year felt akin to camping back home in winter with the four of us in layered clothing and settled on camping mats under a pile of blankets for the night. Looking out treehouse windows to discuss the silhouettes of cedar trees and a starlight sky with Ari deep in the night was a personal highlight of my treehouse sleepover.
Our second day quickly passed with encore sessions at the forest rope swing, warming meals and mountain teas savoured by the camp stove, crafting of bamboo bows, and resultant archery feats over-looking the mountainous valley. Milla and Ari took to the quiet roadside and bamboo forest, embarking on adventures as ‘Arrow Boy’ and ‘Arrow Girl’ – brave conquerors of forest dwelling foes – until it was time for our afternoon train back to the airport city of Narita.
At the conclusion of our Gankoyama stay, two dirty, camp-smoke smelling children unanimously declared the rope swing, bow and arrow making, and games as ‘Arrow Boy’ and ‘Arrow Girl’ to be the highlights of their weekend. From an adult perspective, we thoroughly enjoyed this unique outdoor experience in Japan. We valued the hands-on nature-based experience Gankoyama offered the children and us as a family: we were all actively involved in the weekend and functioning of the village over our stay; the children were free to be wild; and they were also able to explore adventurous and riskier play. It was particularly enjoyable to watch how they responded to Master, and to being given permission to learn how to correctly and safely use tools, tend fires, shoot their own bow and arrows, climb treehouse ladders, and swing over the forest floor.
On behalf of our family, I would like to again thank Master Gankoyama for having us stay at the Treehouse village: for being so generous with sharing his knowledge, and for letting us discover, play, and create our own memories of a secret base deep within the Japanese mountains. Our ‘off the grid, off the ground’ adventure is one we will collectively reflect upon for years to come.
Where: Gankoyama Treehouse Village, a sustainable treehouse village located in Chiba Prefecture, Japan. Approximately 2 hours from Tokyo and Narita International Airport.
What: Gankoyama caters for families, individuals, and schools, including international school groups, with peak season running from May through the Japanese summer. Visitors can participate in either Gankoyama master or treehouse building master courses.
Cost: Our stay was 20,000 Yen (approximately $240 AUD) for a two day / overnight experience including treehouse stay, Gankoyama Master course and meals (check website for course information and pricing)
Recommended for: nature loving families and individuals; those with an interest in nature play, treehouses, Japanese forest culture, and sustainability.