The Meaning of “Sugi” in “Shou Sugi Ban”

Chances are if you’ve found this blog, you know who we are. We’re Nakamoto Forestry, the primary producer of yakisugi-ita or shousugiban, one of the longest-lasting and most gorgeous building materials on earth. 

For our first blog post, we thought it would be fitting to talk about what “sugi” means in “shou sugi ban” and how our wood first starts out: as a Japanese “sugi” or cypress tree.

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.”

The “sugi” in “yakisugi” and “shou sugi ban” is a species of tree,

Cryptomeria japonica. Commonly referred to as Japanese Cedar or Japanese Cypress, it is actually a monotypic genus in the cypress family. Native to Japan, where it covers much of the mountainous country, it’s primarily managed and harvested for lumber. The entire country was replanted post-WWII, and the Japanese lumber industry is larger than most westerners realize. There are still a few old growth stands with trees over 2000 years old, the most famous being Yaku-shima, an island off the southern tip of Kyushu.

What Makes Cypress Durable?

Sugi trees grow straight and fast, up to about 200 feet tall when mature.  The wood is fragrant, naturally rot and insect resistant, and does not easily mildew or stain blue (i.e. blue mildew stain which is why many species such as pine are generally painted and not oiled if used for cladding at all), due to a very high tannin content. The bark is soft and fibrous, and the tiny, needle-shaped leaves grow radially from each twig—similar to North American juniper and cedar spring shoots. The harder, summer growth rings (“late wood”) are thicker than with cedar or larch or many other species, which is critical for our heat treatment process. With cedar and other trees, the soot will erode off almost immediately since it’s so soft, whereas cypress produces a more substantial soot layer that lasts decades without maintenance. Sugi has a janka hardness ranging from 320–350 and is used for all types of construction applications, ranging from framing, to flooring, to wall cladding, to roof decking, to shingles.

Responsible Forest Management

Most of the lumber we produce comes from Sugi grown in forests that the Nakamoto family has managed since at least 1949. These forests must be pruned and thinned, with care taken to clear weeds and ivy away from younger trees that might be negatively affected. Snow is also cleared to promote growth and health. We now own and carefully manage 5000 acres of timberland in the Hiroshima and Tokushima regions. Our focus is now directed toward mature growth and larger-diameter logs. If we continue to responsibly manage our forests, we can reach a felling age of 100 years, thus improving the quality of our product while also  increasing its value and protecting our valuable natural resources.

Mr Kanai, Managing Director at Nakamoto Forestry, showing a stand of sugi trees.

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