Youbi’s new HQ in Honshu is a friendly local hub as well as a furniture factory
Being woken in the middle of the night by a phone call telling you that the furniture factory of the business you have been developing for the last six years is on fire would probably leave most people in a state of gloom. But not Masayuki Oshima, the charismatic president of Youbi, a small producer of Japanese hinoki cypress furniture in the picturesque village of Nishiawakura in Okayama prefecture.
After the last embers were put out and the charred building was surveyed for anything salvageable (precious little), Oshima decided to turn disaster into opportunity. He told his staff that this was their chance to build a better place for Youbi to explore the use of hinoki in furniture, and to create a fun and open workspace for everyone. This was in January 2016.
Fast forward to 2018 and the striking new factory is now a beacon for the whole village. Getting here, though, took some effort. ‘We held an internal workshop in June 2016, where everyone contributed with ideas for our new home,’ Oshima’s wife Naoko explains over lunch in the fully glazed canteen that overlooks the lush green rice paddies surrounding Youbi’s new HQ. Staff take turns preparing meals, and it feels more like having lunch at a friend’s house than eating at a furniture manufacturer.
The showroom, with a pair of ‘hotaru’ stools and a selection of chairs, all made of hinoki cypress. On the back wall is a series of colourful stool cushions made from traditional Japanese fishing flags. Photography: Daici Ano
‘One of the staff came up with the idea of having a dining room at the centre of our new factory,’ Naoko continues, ‘and this room is, in fact, almost completely in the centre of our plot of land.’ Her husband later tells me that since they started preparing and eating their daily lunch together, communication and quality at the factory has gone up considerably.
Before founding Youbi, Masayuki Oshima was learning how to build furniture in Gifu, one of Japan’s more active furniture-producing regions. He heard about the village of Nishiawakura’s ambitious Hundred Year Forest Plan to both rejuvenate the local lumber industry and secure a sustainable tree-filled environment.
‘I came on a brief visit and immediately fell in love with the place and the project,’ he explains. The next day, he handed in his resignation and decided to move roughly 300km west to Nishiawakura.
The village has attracted a number of businesses over the last ten years or so. Besides Youbi, there are a couple of other small wood producers, such as Morinogakko, which makes hinoki flooring and other products for domestic interiors and the building trade. A former school building nearby has been turned into a café, bakery and brewery, and is becoming a local hub.
Some 95 per cent of the municipality is covered by forest. Of that, more than 80 per cent is Japanese hinoki cypress or sugi cedar. Hinoki has been traditionally used for the construction of homes and temples, as well as Japanese bathtubs. Not many people have experimented with using hinoki for furniture as it is believed to be too light and too soft. Oshima, however, quickly decided to make furniture using only hinoki precisely for those reasons.
Youbi’s Windsor chair, for example, can be easily lifted with one hand despite its sturdy construction. Because of the flexibility of the material, Youbi is able to bend the wood into shapes that would be more difficult with harder species. ‘It’s also important for us that we support the local lumber industry,’ says Oshima.
When forced to rebuild the factory after the fire, it was only natural to look at using local lumber for the bulk of the construction, too. A friend showed Oshima a way of using plain sugi cedar beams in a grid structure that would allow for the wide spans needed for the large factory area. Oshima was quickly convinced this method would make a striking statement for the company.
Work started in June 2017 and because funds were tight, Oshima invited friends to come and help with the construction. ‘Word quickly spread, and we even had people showing up that had heard about a fun project here in Nishiawakura, but otherwise had no idea of what the project was or who we were,’ Oshima laughs.
In total, more than 400 volunteers helped out, before the factory reopened earlier this year. Visitors are welcome, and if you arrive around noon you might be lucky enough to get invited to the staff lunch. §