takashi kobayashi treehouses hokkaido
credit: Takashi Kobayashi / Treehouse People

Interest in tree houses continues to grow, to the point that builders even have an annual conference in Oregon, U.S.A. celebrating the form. Photo spreads of treehouse dwellings have graced numerous magazines and travel websites, documenting ingenious arboreal habitations from Costa Rica to England, Mozambique to Sweden, Bali to British Colombia. Airbnb features a number of tree houses for rent.

Japan has its own modest contributions to the trend, in the many forms of the delightful tree houses of Takashi Kobayashi. While Kobayashi’s tree houses are smaller and simpler than many of those in other countries, they are uniquely Japanese and are arguably the most like the “tree houses” we might imagine from childhood than the many structures now being called tree houses.

While some “tree” houses are more like hillside, cantilevered or merely stilt-based dwellings that earn the name by emphasizing their views out through the branches of trees, Kobayashi’s trees are exactly what you’d expect from the phrase “tree house”: Small, hand-crafted, rustic, and sitting high above the ground, directly on the trunk and biggest branches of a carefully-chosen tree. While this means that they feature no hot tubs or extensive decks, as in many other “tree houses” around the world, a Kobayashi tree house is the real deal.

takashi-kobayashi-treehouses
credit: Takashi Kobayashi / Treehouse People

His tree houses are a way, the artist and self-taught architect says, “To break down the feeling of separation that exists between humans and nature.”

True to basic elements of Japanese design, Kobayashi pays special attention to the setting of his houses, and places them in the landscape – and in the trees themselves – in the most sympathetic ways. While many “tree houses” around the world tend to dominate their arboreal environments, Kobayashi’s tree houses seem almost half-hidden in the tree branches, more like a natural outgrowth of the tree than a heavy burden imposed upon it.

takashi kobayashi treehouse
Photo via Pinterest

As he has written of his inspiration, “Treehouse building has taken me to forests and woodlands across Japan, across the globe, and everywhere I’ve been, I’ve seen reflected in these largest and oldest of living beings the same nameless light that I’ve struggled to maintain within myself for so many years, the one that no one could tarnish and that never seemed to disappear. That comfort, that sense of calm, is something I’d like to share with as many people as possible. And it is with that in mind that I will continue with the one-of-a-kind rush that is treehouse creation, all the while carrying out my own personal dialogue with their hosts.”

takashi kobayashi treehouses chiba
credit: Takashi Kobayashi / Treehouse People

Kobayashi first discovered trees when living, of all places, in the hip, chaotic Harajuku area of Tokyo, hardly a rustic, natural environment. But an enormous Himalayan cedar in front of his building touched something deep inside him, and led him down the path to becoming an unschooled, but hardly uninspired, arboreal architect.

That first tree house still stands, and is the easiest of Kobayashi’s creations to visit. It is now a coffeehouse called Hideaway, which features a library, a shop and fixed-price lunches daily, as well as a teatime in the late afternoon. It is located not far from the Harajuku railway station, at #202, 3-20-1 Jingu-mae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. It is open from noon to 2300 daily.

Kobayashi’s devotion to the basics of Japanese design does not keep him from also incorporating another of contemporary Japan’s artistic delights: Playfulness. Because he likes to design for children, Kobayashi’s structures can be fanciful in the extreme, as in the kindergarten treehouse he made in Katsushika, Tokyo, which looks like a small wooden boat sailing over the school’s playground. Another example is the schoolhouse Kobayashi built as a gift to the children and families of Sendai, in an area devastated by the catastrophic tsunami that hit Fukushima in November 2011. There, Kobayashi, a father of three who was deeply affected by the disaster and its impact on children, decided to build a tree schoolhouse that would bring delight and joy back into the lives of the families whose lives had been so tragically disrupted.

The details of Kobayashi’s roughly 120 tree houses are often influenced by elements of the surrounding trees themselves, such as doorways and railings made from lovingly-crafted branches, which give a rustic, natural feel to the buildings. Some houses even feature wood-burning stoves, which add a nice touch of the circular nature of trees and the useful products (e.g. deadwood) that they provide humans. Others are angular and almost modernist, were it not for their rustic materials and natural settings.

kobayashi treehouse
photo via theartroomplant.blogspot.com

Above all, Kobayashi’s whimsical tree houses are a sweet, often dazzling expression of Japanese design as well as art, not to mention being modern exemplars of the Japanese fascination with and love for nature.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON