7 Japanese Wood Types (with Photos)

Jessica Stone
by Jessica Stone
Japanese wood is commonly used for flooring and framework, and there are 7 unique varieties. They can sometimes be expensive imports, but Japanese woods such as Old Japanese Cedar and Japanese Cypress are among the most popular. Whether it be Japanese Elm or Japanese Umbrella Pine, let’s take a look at these 7 unique types of Japanese wood.

Japanese carpentry came about over a millennium ago, drawing architectural influence from the Chinese, including Ancient Chinese wooden architecture, uses, and woodworking joints. It encompasses the construction of things like wooden furniture, shrines, and temples without the use of glue, screws, nails, or power tools.

The primary Japanese wood types that are used in carpentry, woodwork, and tool construction include Japanese Cypress (Hinoki 桧), Japanese Cedar (Sugi 杉), and Japanese Red Pine (Akamatsu 赤松). Though, there are some additional Japanese wood species that are less common due to their scarcity which results in an expensive price points. These include: Old Japanese Cedar (Jindai Sugi 甚大), Japanese Umbrella Pine (Kōyamaki こうやまき), Paulownia (Kiri 桐), and Japanese Elm (Keyaki 欅).

7 Japanese Wood Types

Whether you’re simply interested in the wonderful world of Japanese carpentry and woodwork or you want to try your hand at Japanese woodcraft, we’ve outlined the most commonly used types of Japanese wood, along with their characteristics and uses. Continue reading for our comprehensive guide on seven different Japanese wood types.

1. Japanese Cypress (Hinoki 桧)

Japanese Cypress, called hinoki, is one of the most famous types of wood used in traditional Japanese construction. This cypress is native to Japan and has been cultivated and used for more than 1,000 years. The tree grows in Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. Though, the cypress grown in Kiso, called called 御神木 go-shin-boku, or “divine trees,” is especially famous and was used in the construction of the Ise Grand Shrine.

It is grown because it produces exceptionally high-quality timber, which is used as a building material for temples, palaces, shrines, baths, traditional noh theatres, and more. The wood itself has a lemon scent, is light pinkish-brown in color, and has a rich, straight grain. Hinoki is known for being highly resistant to rot, water, and humidity. It is also very strong, offering long term durability.

The strength of this wood increases for approximately 200 years, even after it has been cut. After 200 years, the wood will slowly return to its original strength – taking about 1000 years. Horyu-ji in Nara Japan, Japan’s oldest temple and the oldest wooden structure in the world, was made with Hinoki.

Additional advantages of this type of Japanese wood is the fact that it is a natural insecticide and contains an antibacterial component, which makes it resistant to decay. Not to mention, the wood can absorb toxic substances, removing them from your home.

2. Japanese Cedar (Sugi 杉)

The Japanese Cedar is the national tree of Japan, and is often found planted around shrines and temples. Its scientific classification is Cryptomeria japonica, and this tree used to be classified by some as being native to Japan, where it’s called Sugi (or, ‘Hair Tree’). Though, in English, this tree is referred to as a Japanese Cedar or Japanese redwood.

The timber that comes from the Japanese cedar is incredibly fragrant, soft, insect, and weather-resistant, and has a low density. It is light red or reddish-brown in color with a gorgeous grain that develops character with long term use. The wood is commonly used in the construction of ceiling boards, furniture, pillars, ships, tubs, and many indoor applications.

Sugi wood is lightweight, but very strong, and usually easy to work with. It is easy to saw, preferred for light construction, boxes, plywood and veneers. The lumber responds poorly to steam bendy and knotty areas in the wood can be troublesome. Though, it finishes, stains, and glues well.

3. Japanese Red Pine (Akamatsu 赤松)

Pinus densiflora, also referred to as the Japanese pine, Korean red pine, and the Japanese red pine is a popular ornamental tree with numerous cultivars. In Japan, it is known as akamatsu, which literally translates to “red pine.” The tree is widely cultivated throughout Japan both as an ornamental tree and for timber production.

The heartwood of a Japanese red pine is a light reddish-brown color, while the sapwood is a pale yellowish-white. Its grain is straight, featuring a medium, even texture and an oily feel, as the wood has a high resign content. Akamatsu is a desirable Japanese wood type because it is strong, but lightweight, and highly resistant to rot.

Its rot resistance mad Japanese red pine wood ideal for bridge construction during ancient times. In fact, many old temples in Japan use akamatsu – particularly in the construction of the beams. Despite being a very versatile type of timber, Japanese red pine is not as commonly used and not as widely available as hinoki or sugi.

4. Old Japanese Cedar (Jindai Sugi 甚大)

Jindai Sugi, or Old Japanese Cedar, is one of many Japanese Cedar cultivars. The tree is known for its congested foliage and dark green colors. It is said to be one thousand, if not several thousands, of years old and often found buried in lake beds or marshes. The high iron content of the wood gives it an appealing deep grey-brown color, which can sometimes be a richer, black.

This Japanese wood type is incredibly rare and not widely available. As such, it is typically used only in the construction of precious items, such as flower vases and tea ceremony utensils. Pieces made out of Jindai Sugi are also very expensive. – like the cooler picture above which sells for nearly $5,000.

5. Japanese Umbrella Pine (Kōyamaki こうやまき)

In plant taxonomy, Japanese umbrella pine trees are classified as Sciadopitys verticillata. These conifers are needled evergreens, and aren’t true pine trees despite their common name. Called Kōyamaki in Japan, this tree is one of Japan’s five sacred trees. It is rare and expensive, since the tree grows slowly and takes a considerable amount of time to grow a sapling that is big enough to sell. As such, the wood that comes from the Japanese umbrella pine is also rare and expensive.

The wood itself has an attractive white color, with transparent resin, and is seen as a noble color. It is commonly used for bath tubs, or yuoke, and onsen bath tubs, as the wood is resistant to water. You’ll also see Japanese umbrella pine wood used to make tableware for cold items, like ice pales, pitchers, or sashimi plates.

6. Paulownia (Kiri 桐)

Also called the Princess Tree or Empress Tree, Paulownia is native to eastern Asia and can be found in some parts of eastern North America. This type of Japanese wood is used in applications where a lightweight, yet durable, wood is required. It is commonly used in Japan for building the koto (a stringed musical instrument), in addition to various household items, furniture, boxes, veneer, plywood, clogs, carvings, and other specialty items – in which case the wood is called Kiri.

Paulownia is one of the fastest-growing trees in the world, and can grow well over seven feet a year as a seedling. While it is widely cultivated and highly appreciated all across Asia, Paulownia is considered an invasive species in the United States. Its heartwood is usually a pale grayish-brown color, oftentimes with a reddish or purple hue. Whereas, the sapwood is a light, pale white color. This Japanese wood is also warp-resistant, and has a straight grain, with a coarse, uneven texture.

7. Japanese Elm (Keyaki 欅)

The Japanese elm is native to Korea, Japan, Taiwan and eastern China. It is typically grown as an ornamental tree and is commonly used in bonsai. The wood is hard, dense, and heavy with a gorgeous grain and superior strength. Many consider keyaki to be the best Japanese hardwood for commercial lumber. Though, it was most often used for its strength in the past, nowadays, many choose this type of Japanese wood for its elegant and gorgeous appearance.

The heartwood has a yellowish-brown color, while the sapwood is yellowish-white. Like hinoki, keyaki is considered to be a premium wood type. It is commonly used in the construction of furniture – particularly tansu chests – cabinetry, fine ornamental items, and household items. Keyaki is also the ideal wood for building taiko, which is a term used in Japan to refer to any type of drum.

Japanese Carpentry

Carpentry in Japan dates back to over 1,000 years ago. While in western construction, we typically separate the constructor form the architect/designer, in Japan the carpenter is also the architect. Japanese carpentry is notorious for its ability to construct everything from furniture to teahouses to houses to temples and shrines, all without the use of any screws, glue, nails, or electric tools.

This is achieved through a process known as joinery, which involves the creation of interlocking joints that connect carefully chosen pieces of wood. Also referred to as Sashimono, this technique involves assembling furniture and other wooden items without nails, and instead using both simple and complex joints.

Mortises or grooves, known as hozo, are carved into the wood to join two boards in a blind joint that is not visible from the outer surface.

Japanese Carpenters

While there is a core practice and tradition that is shared by all Japanese carpenters, described by a lexis of joints and tools and a process of working, a carpenter will usually fall into one of four distinct Japanese carpentry professions.

  • Miyadaiku (宮大工) are experts in constructing Japanese shrines, temples, and other large projects. They are known for their use of intricate wood joints and the fact that the structures they build are often found among the longest surviving wooden buildings in the world.
  • Sukiya-daiku(数奇屋大工) are the constructors of teahouses and residential structures. They are renowned for their elaborate aesthetic constructions that use rustic materials.
  • Sashimono-shi (指し物師) are the furniture makers.
  • Tateguya(建具屋) are responsible for interior finishing work – specifically shōji (障子), doors, windows, and room dividers in traditional Japanese architecture. 

Although it is uncommon to see a Japanese carpenter working outside of their field, it can happen. For instance, some Japanese carpentry workshops work simultaneously as both sukiyadaiku and miyadaiku. Japanese carpenters are exceptional artists, and their advanced joinery techniques and appreciation of strong woods, like hinoki and sugi, make them very special in their craft. This craft is one that has been perfected over thousands of years, and it is evident.

Related Questions

What is the difference between heartwood and sapwood?

You may have come across these two terms if you’re about to dive into a woodworking project. The main differences between heartwood and sapwood has to do with how the tree grows. If you crosscut the trunk of a mature hardwood tree and take out both the bark and the outer cambium layer, you’ll see too separate sections of the trunk.The outer, lighter-colored wood is called the sapwood. This portion of the tree is the “working” part, as sap and water flow through it. Although this part of the trunk is crucial to a tree when it’s alive, it doesn’t work well for woodworking purposes. This is because sapwood contains a lot of moisture, will shrink when dried, and is more susceptible to fungus growth than heartwood.Heartwood, on the other hand, is the inner, darker section in the trunk. It is created from the old sapwood, becoming the robust spine of the tree. Since it is less susceptible to fungus and contains less moisture, heartwood is often preferred over sapwood for woodworking.

What is shou sugi ban?

Shou sugi ban, or yakisugi, is a traditional Japanese wood-burning technique that helps bring out the natural patterns in the wood, while simultaneously making it resistant to water. It is currently trending in the design world. There isn’t a single look for this technique, as what shou sugi ban looks like will vary based on the wood, how it was stained, and how long it is burned.Although shou sugi ban is usually considered ideal for exterior applications, it has taken the interior design world by storm. The technique involves three basic requirements: Wood, a heat source, and a finishing oil. While yakisugi literally translates to ‘burned cedar,’ the Japanese Cedar (which is actually a cypress tree) is traditionally used.

What are the main types of wood?

The three main types of wood that you’ll likely come across are hardwoods, softwoods, and engineered wood.

Related Articles

Jessica Stone
Jessica Stone

Jessica considers herself a home improvement and design enthusiast. She grew up surrounded by constant home improvement projects and owes most of what she knows to helping her dad renovate her childhood home. Being a Los Angeles resident, Jessica spends a lot of her time looking for her next DIY project and sharing her love for home design.

More by Jessica Stone