An visitor to Kyoto’s world-famous gardens and temples could not fail to be awed by the stands and avenues of towering Kitayama sugi (Japanese red cedar, or peacock pine; Cryptomeria japonica).
A native of China and Japan, this member of the Taxodiaceae (or Taxodium) family of conifers — of which the California redwood, or giant sequoia, is another of the 15 members (genera) — Kitayama sugi owes its prominence here to cultural trends more than 600 years ago.
Then, during what is known as the Oei Period (1394-1428), there was great prosperity in Heian Kyo — present-day Kyoto — and with the widespread influence of the tea ceremony (cha-no-yu), a great number of teahouses were built in the sukiya style of great refinement and simplicity.
As sugi are fast-growing evergreens that yield a strong, durable and fragrant wood that is first-class for both building and joinery — as well as being resistant to insects and easy to work — they were planted in great numbers in the mountains northeast of Heian Kyo to provide a steady supply of timber for those simple wooden buildings.
In addition, both the mid-17th-century Kadsura and Shugakuin detached palaces in Kyoto were built from Kitayama sugi, as many temples have been since those days. The same timber can also be found in many traditional Japanese rooms (washitsu), especially tatami-floored tearooms (chashitsu) which have an alcove called a tokonoma where kakejiku hanging scrolls and seasonal flowers are displayed. The front of this alcove is traditionally framed by posts called tokobashira (alcove posts), that are most frequently attractive trunks of Kitayama sugi.
Just as it has many uses, though, sugi — which constitute around a third of Japan’s planted forests — come in many forms. Basically, there are two distinct and geographically isolated varieties: C. japonica var. sinensis that grows in China; and C. japonica var. japonica that grows in Japan.
Within Japan, there are differences between those that grow on the Sea of Japan side and those on the Pacific side. As the Sea of Japan side typically has heavy snows in winter, the sugi there — known as ura-sugi (C. japonica var. radicans) — have branches that sweep down to the ground to prevent them collecting heavy loads of snow that would snap them.
Elsewhere, there are other local variants with slightly different textures to their wood. Beside Kyoto’s Kitayama-sugi, Akita-sugi, for instance, comes from Akita, tateyama-sugi from Toyama, yoshino-sugi from Nara and obi-sugi from Miyazaki. Finally, there is the Yakusugi from Yakushima Island south of Kyushu, which is home to the world-famous, 7,000-year-old “Jomon sugi.”
Despite such regional variations, though, all sugi are characterized by their straight trunks that can reach up to 50 meters, with a diameter of 2 meters. Mature trees form a narrow, conical shape that is slightly rounded at the apex. The leaves of sugi are awl-shaped and around 1 cm long, and in winter they turn a distinctive reddish-brown color.
Between March and April, male and female flowers are borne on the same tree. The male blooms are in bunches 5 to 8 mm long, and they fill the air with the pollen that nowadays results in many hay-fever victims; the female flowers are green rosettes borne singly, each 2-3 cm long and pointing upright, and the cones that they become are globular and 2 cm in diameter.
The heartwood of all sugi trees is reddish-brown and the sapwood is pale yellow to golden in color, while the thick, fibrous reddish-brown bark peels away in long strips that have led to its traditional use as a roof-tiling material, especially for Shinto shrines. Meanwhile, thin strips of sugi bark, known as sugi-kawa, are used when new trees are planted, placed between them and their supporting stakes to prevent abrasion.
Sugi are normally grown commercially on mountains up to around 600 meters above sea level, with only the lower, less steep slopes given over to the plantations that require constant care and attention. When they are saplings, they are kept upright with bamboo stakes, weeds are kept down around them and all their side branches are carefully removed as they grow.
Trees are felled during late autumn or early winter, when there is no sap uptake. The bark is then carefully removed and the round logs are left to dry for two to three years in large airy sheds. Afterward, if the wood is to be used for tokobashira (which, incidentally, are far from cheap whatever the size), it is polished with sand, and a long, thin sliver is removed from the back of the post to allow it to flex over time and prevent cracking.
Interestingly, if you drive around the country lanes off Route 162 between Nakagawa and Kitayama village in Kyoto Prefecture, you will notice many sugi have hundreds of pencil-like, white plastic strips bound closely together with wire around their trunks. These bindings are normally taken off after about two years, when they have served their purpose of creating a slightly knurled texture on the trunk, which makes for an even more attractive — and expensive — tokobashira.
In the same area, meanwhile, you may also see another type of sugi being cultivated, known as dai-sugi. This is a coppiced sugi with many stems that is grown both for replanting in traditional gardens, and for its round form of timber known as taruki (“rafter”) that is used in the roofs of Japanese teahouses.
Finally, in 1965, Kitayama sugi was accorded the distinction of being selected as the symbol tree of Kyoto, and — if you are not already familiar with this beautiful cedar — I’m sure that on your next visit to the old Imperial capital, you will soon see why.