In late August 2022, Kai (Japan / Class of 2021) returned to the UWC ISAK Japan campus. He met with some of his former teachers, but the primary purpose of his visit was to check in with a particular project close to his heart—the ISAK Treehouse, now a symbol of our high school in a forest.
Nested a few hundred meters off-campus in UWC ISAK Japan’s forest lease, the treehouse was a joint initiative of two Class of 2021 students, Rin (Japan / Class of 2021) and Kai. The school originally named it the RinKai Treehouse after the two students that drove the project, which also captured the meaning of forest (林 – rin) to sea (海 – Kai). Manami (Japan / Class of 2022) joined their team and actively fundraised with Nagano Prefecture to build the tree house.
From the day she arrived on campus, Rin dreamed of creating a treehouse. But on the other hand, Kai joined the project to fulfill his vision of fostering stronger connections between the school community, the local community, and the environment. Manami ensured the tree house continued welcoming community events after both Rin and Kai graduated.
So, one year after graduating, Kai returned to his former home at UWC ISAK to continue working on the project. He worked with his former advisor, Mr. Masui, to clear the path leading to the ISAK Treehouse. The treehouse is a special place for the UWC ISAK Japan community. It is a place for music, relaxation, discussions, and connexion with nature and the local community. It reminds us we are part of a greater world students can often feel disconnected from, shielded in our school’s “bubble.”
A school in the middle of the forest
Kai came to UWC ISAK Japan to grow ideas with friends instead of on his own. But, at one point, he realized: “The school offers so much. I needed to have something to offer as well. And that was the forest.” Kai was always interested in the space between humans and nature. From a very young age, he would go to parks in Tokyo to forage wild plants, visit farms and take care of goats in Nagano prefecture as a Junior High student. The forest of Karuizawa felt like the intersection between all of these to him.
That’s how he came to join the Forest Club in Grade 11. They would hold one to two events per month which, at the start, consisted in taking pictures of the forest at the microscopic level. This practice focuses the human eye on things it doesn’t usually see. But that was not enough for Kai. He needed to contribute more tangibly to the community by fostering human relations before their relation to nature. He soon realized the forest could connect students with the neighboring community, which is what he wanted to focus on for the rest of his time at UWC ISAK Japan. So he decided to start a CAS project on how to connect humans through the natural world.
Connexion through nature
Kai’s CAS project first organized a forest listening session during his Grade 11 interfaith festival under the theme ‘silence.’ During this event, a student would come up with a poem, and others would have to create another replicating the first poem’s impressions. He also made a space where students could gather outside by installing a hammock in the shade. Five to six students would meet weekly to have deep discussions outdoors.
However much Kai enjoyed these lengthy discussions, he was unhappy that he was constantly gathering with the same group of people. So one day, he split the cafeteria into three areas to make talking with new people easier: the “I want to meet new people and know about them” side, the “I want to sit with my favorite people” side, and the “I want to eat alone” corner. Still, he soon realized he was looking for a more organic way to gather people and create a sense of community.
The tree house project
That is when he crossed paths with Rin. From the beginning of her time at UWC ISAK Japan, Rin wanted to build a treehouse in the forest where everyone could come freely. “There was a lack of attraction to the forest,” thinks Kai. “People thought it was too far, although we are in the middle of it! They would ask: why would I go? To do what?” The tree house to him would have this magical power of bringing people to the forest. People would want to see how it looks, take part in its construction, and take ownership of this flexible space.
However, building a tree house in the beautiful Karuizawa forest wasn’t easy. Obtaining a permit from the forestry office took a long time, and so did securing funding from the prefecture. The construction started only one month before Rin and Kai’s graduation. A company that Rin knew about prepared all the material for UWC ISAK Japan to assemble, and they constructed the basement. Then, in the space of one week, a motivated group of students built the walls and pillars of the tree house. Just on time for graduation! Two or three days before the big ceremony, they hosted a concert in the ISAK Treehouse and finally had a chance to invite the local community. Kai expressed it was a great success, and they could fundraise money to maintain the tree house.
An education like no other
Kai studied only in the Japanese system before high school. “One of the reasons I am interested in nature is that it is very different from human life in which there are too many rules and little space for people to shine”, says Kai. “I strongly felt that in elementary school, where people tried to shape students. So unconsciously, I wanted to escape that, I think.”
“At UWC ISAK Japan, I learned I could think and imagine in my language. I didn’t have to limit my interests to just a few. I was not afraid of talking about things that are yet to make sense. Not being afraid of speaking out, thinking out loud, and trying new things out allowed my ideas to take shape.”
Kai was often the last one to finish his meals at the cafeteria. “There were too many interesting conversations!” he says, laughing. Another way UWC ISAK Japan was different from other types of education encountered in his life was the sense of community. “At UWC ISAK Japan, we care about our community, he recalls. We appreciate our talents; we try to contribute to the community in our own ways, whether through music, gardening, or just a smile.” He misses this sense of community at university, where he has to put more effort into being understood.
Putting ideas into practice
These efforts led Kai to write more. He started it when at UWC ISAK Japan through poetry. “I always loved literature but never thought about creating one before high school,” he says. At UWC ISAK Japan, he learned to challenge himself and put his big ideas into practice.
“I already had a few hypotheses I wanted to try but never knew where to start. In the end, all of my ideas that appeared so scattered at the beginning took shape and made sense. I am just interested in a wide array of things.” These days, Kai writes a lot on the website Note, the Japanese equivalent of Medium.
Currently studying Biophysics at Case Western Reserve University, Kai would like to pursue a Ph.D. to answer the question: “How do molecules in crowded and confined (≈messy) cellular environments drive life’s key functions?” Building on top of this exploration, he wants to understand how biosystems like the Karuizawa forest sustain themselves without a manager. Maybe his learnings could help quite a few humans, too.
Read more stories from UWC ISAK Japan alumni on our Leaders Beacon Blog.