Sugi and Hinoki: Japan’s Principal Lumber Species

There are a few dozen primary lumber species grown in the northern hemisphere, and two are indigenous to Japan: sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) and hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa). In this article, we will delve into the characteristics, applications, and cultural significance of these sacred softwoods.

Sugi (Cryptomeria japonica):

Appearance and Characteristics: Sugi, also known as Japanese cedar or cypress, has reddish-brown heartwood and straw-colored sapwood. It has a straight grain, moderate texture, and is resistant to fungus, insects, borers, and fire, making it a very durable option.

Sugi develops many branches when young and therefore the lumber generally has many small knots. Knots give the wood character and are generally part of the aesthetic appeal. For those who prefer boards without knots, premium clear grade is also a readily available option. In Japan, managed sugi forest is often limbed at 20-40 years old, meaning the lower limbs are cut off flush with the trunk. Lumber from the center of the logs will always have knots. The premium clear grade comes from the outside portion of the log that grows after the trees are limbed. Therefore select “character” grade generally has more heartwood, and premium clear grade generally has more sapwood. 

Applications and Uses: Sugi is a lightweight, fast-drying, mineral-rich, and straight-grained wood with a low deflection rate. The grain is consistent and contrasting, and the color is highly variable. This combination is considered aesthetically pleasing in appearance-grade lumber. Since these characteristics are desirable for construction lumber and sugi exhibits them more than other species available in Japan, it is therefore the predominant species used in low to midrise construction. Architectural applications include the full range, including vertical and horizontal framing members, exterior siding and frieze components, interior flooring and paneling, and furniture and fencing. Sugi is utilized in larger volume than all other species combined.

Of all these applications, Japan is probably most well known for yakisugi charred wood siding. The charring process has been optimized on the sugi species over centuries, and it is the only species ever used in the charring process. Indeed the term yakisugi means “charred sugi” and it is rich in cultural history. The charring process results in flamboyantly beautiful siding with increased resistance to decay, fire, and insects. The soot layer can be left fully intact, or wire brushed to polish into different textures.

Nakamoto Forestry has been the preeminent sugi siding, yakisugi, and flooring manufacturer in Japan since the 1970’s. Shop our charred and uncharred sugi products.

Hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa):

A rendering image of premium clear grade hinoki Japanese cypress
A rendering image of premium clear grade hinoki Japanese cypress.

Appearance and Characteristics: Hinoki, also known as Japanese cypress, is an aromatic cypress species native to central and southern Japan. It grows more slowly and is more mineral-rich than sugi, resulting in a consistently tight, dense, and straight grain. The growth rings are more nuanced and the wood has an even blonde color with pink highlights. Hinoki contains natural oils including hinokitiols, making it resistant to rot, fungi, and insects, much like sugi. The fresh and robust aroma has a lemon-like scent that has been shown in academic studies to give unique health benefits. These benefits include a palpable relaxation effect, and strengthening of the immune, nervous, and respiratory systems.

Due to these characteristics hinoki is considered a sacred species in the indigenous animistic Shinto tradition and is the primary species used in Shinto shrine construction. In fact, hinoki becomes stronger as it ages and due to its astounding durability, many of these shrines as well as Buddhist temples remain intact after hundreds of years. Hinoki lumber has been shown to gradually weaken starting 1,000 years after the building is erected.

Historic Shrine made from Hinoki in Tsuyama, Japan
Yoshiyuki Itotani of Nakamoto Zourin and William Beleck of Nakamoto Forestry looking at a historic shrine made exclusively from hinoki in Tsuyama, Japan.
Historic Shrine made of Hinoki in Tsuyama, Japan (Close-up)
Detail of the hinoki shrine in Tsuyama, Japan.

Applications and Uses: Hinoki is a versatile material, with applications ranging from framing timbers, interior paneling, and exterior siding, to flooring and furniture. It is an especially outstanding option for tubs and saunas, where its calming and beneficial aroma is elevated. Hinoki can be used oiled or unoiled, but due to the aroma it is generally used without an oil finish. 

Hinoki Japanese cypress used as a wall cladding in a school gymnasium in Japan
Hinoki Japanese cypress used as a wall cladding in a school gymnasium in Japan.

Due to high natural oil content hinoki will bleed pitch during storage, so it must be molded or faced immediately before use. Nakamoto Forestry North America inventories hinoki moulder blanks which are then custom milled at customers’ local millwork shops to any number of profile options.

A unit of hinoki custom molded for the Snow Peak Campfield sauna.
A unit of hinoki custom molded for the Snow Peak Campfield sauna.

Side by Side – Sugi vs. Hinoki

While sugi and hinoki share many similarities in texture and durability, they have several differences which may make one a better fit for your project than the other. Sugi has a warmer and darker color compared to hinoki’s blonde pallet. While sugi also has a high durability rating, hinoki’s durability is unmatched by any other softwood species. Sugi is very soft and porous, ideal for exterior siding. Hinoki is heavy and hard, making it ideal for interior flooring. Both species are aromatic and beautiful, characteristics ideal for interior paneling. Below is a side-by-side comparison of the similarities and differences between sugi and hinoki as a building material:

Criteria Sugi Cypress (Japanese Cedar)Hinoki Cypress (Japanese Cypress)
Geographical OriginVarious cultivars throughout JapanCentral and Southern Japan
Average Dried Weight 23 lbs/ ft332 lbs/ ft3
Specific Gravity (Basic, 12% MC) 0.33, 0.36 0.44, 0.46
Janka Hardness 320 lbf500-800 lbf
Modulus of Rupture 5,280 lbf/in210,170 lbf/in2
Elastic Modulus 1,109,000 lbf/in2 1,622,972 lbf/in2
Crushing Strength 4,836 lbf/in2 5,689 lbf/in2
Shrinkage
(From green MC to oven dry MC)
Radial: 2.4%

Tangential: 5%
Radial: 3.07%

Tangential: 6.43%
Wood ColorReddish-brown heartwood and straw-colored sapwood with strong contrast between the two. Pink heartwood and blonde colored sapwood with faint contrast between the two.
Grain/ Texture Straight, contrasting grain. Medium, even texture. Moderate natural luster. Straight, fine, and even grain. Smooth texture. Moderate natural luster.
Rot Resistance/ Durability Naturally resistant to rot, decay, and insects. Very durable. Naturally resistant to rot, decay, and insects. The most durable marketable softwood lumber species from Japan.
Aroma Distinct, cedar-like aroma.Pungent and fresh, lemony aroma.
Applications Siding, paneling, furniture, boatbuilding, framing.Paneling, flooring, saunas, bath tubs, furniture, framing.
Sustainability Grown in forests that have been sustainably managed for generations. Grown in forests that have been sustainably managed for generations.

To further compare these wondrous woods, please reach out to our sales team for budgetary pricing, information, or samples.

Sugi Forest in Japan
A forest of sugi Japanese cedar trees planted by Mr. Nakamoto’s grandfather in Hiroshima soon after WWII.

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