Japanese cypress, known in Japan as sugi, is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Sugi cypress is endemic to the country. You can find sugi in its different forms all over Japan. Its significance can be found across different aspects of Japanese culture. From construction materials to deep spiritual connections, sugi is present in almost every facet of life.
1. Structural Purposes
Sugi’s ability to produce strong straight logs means it’s an ideal option for building materials. Fences, bridges, and even boats are built with sugi. Because its wood is so strong, carpenters use traditional joinery methods in place of nails and screws. Sugi has been shown to lead to passive increased health benefits. Sugi really is a wonder material!
2. Shou Sugi Ban / Yakisugi
It’s pretty obvious that we’d bring this up. Shou sugi ban, or yakisugi, is the process of heat treating sugi cypress. This process burns off the part of the wood that can lead to pest and rot issues. Additionally, it protects the siding from UV damage. Shou sugi ban is beautiful, low maintenance and long lasting. Yakisugi ages beautifully. It gains a patina over time, showing off the wabi-sabi nature of this product.
3. Roofing with Sugi Cypress
Sugi’s protective bark is versatile like its lumber. Harvesters use rope and bamboo knives to gently remove the largest pieces possible. The tradespeople then shape the bark into shingles. You will often see sugi roofs on shrines, temples and tea houses. Traditionally, harvesting takes place at nearby sugi groves. After five years, the bark on the sugi grows back. This means it’s ready for harvesting once again. Sugi is one of the most sustainably utilized trees.
4. Sugi Cypress Incense
We can’t overlook one of the smallest components of the sugi tree: the needles. People distill the needles to make essential oils. One of the uses of sugi essential oil is stress management. The needles have a citrus-like smell when fresh. When dried into incense and burned, the distinguished cedar aroma takes over.
5. Sake Barrels
Beautiful building materials, incense, and now sake? What can this tree not do?! Sugi is popular among sake brewers. Taru sake uses barrels made from sugi to age the rice wine. Sake brewers revere sugi for its cedar-like smell. Some brewers even seek out subspecies for their unique qualities. Yoshino Sugi, the subspecies we use for siding, is popular for its fragrant reddish center and whiteish outer color.
Sugidama are also a favorite of sake brewers. Literally translating to sugi ball, sake brewers would hang these spheres to tell the local community that sake production had begun. Made from fresh sugi branches, sugidama alerted the town that sake was ready to drink when it had turned brown. Modern sake brewers still hang sugidama as a nod to tradition.
7. Sugi Cypress and Spirituality
Sugi cypress trees have earned a place of respect in Japanese culture. There are notable giants that have been around for thousands of years. Jōmon Sugi is a tree located on Yakushima Island. It’s anywhere between 2,170-7,200 years old. Sugi have so much cultural relevance that the government has taken steps to protect important trees.
In Shinto temples around Japan, sugi are protected by shide, which are hung on shimenawa rope. Shide are paper streamers that ward off danger. Shide and shimenawa together signify spaces or objects that are sacred.
There is a piece of mythology that connects all of this back together: Susano-o, younger brother of Amaterasu the Sun Goddess, traveled across Japan, plucking his beard hairs and planting them across the land. These hairs grew and matured into sugi.
The belief is that sugi came to Earth from the gods. It’s easy to see how highly regarded it is for its strength, versatility, and overall excellence. I certainly agree.