焼杉 Yakisugi: An Origin Story

Japan is often called a land of contradictions. It is a place where technology is pushed to new limits, and where urban cityscapes can span past the horizon. Yet it is also a country and culture that intentionally honors and preserves the past.

In order to understand the modern context of Yakisugi in Japan, one must look back a few centuries to the policy of Sakoku, during the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled from roughly the year 1600 to 1868. Prior to this time period, Portuguese traders and missionaries found great success in the import and export of goods and knowledge, with the first European contact taking place in 1543. But in response to an increase in piracy and the perceived threat of external ideology, the Sakoku policies created near-total isolation for Japan on the world stage.

During this time, also called the Edo Period, the Tokugawa Shogunate moved the capital of Japan from Kyoto to Edo (now known as Tokyo). The new capital of Edo, like much of Japan, was constructed primarily of wood and paper, leading to a number of devastating fires. After a particularly destructive event in 1657, Japanese architecture began to pivot towards techniques and designs that would help mitigate the effects of fire. Thatched roofs were replaced by tiles, and stone embankments were constructed to reduce fire spread.

By the 1700s, a new technique was developed  to help slow the spread of fires, and provide a stronger and more weather-resistant coating to wood buildings. Known as Yakisugi (or Shou Sugi Ban), this technique involves charring the exterior of a wood surface until a layer of carbonization is achieved. While this carbonization can sometimes appear almost as a dark-brown stain, it can also take on a crackled pattern, depending on the intensity of the burn and the species of wood used.

Traditionally, this process was performed on Japanese Cedar (called “Sugi”), though in modern times it has been applied to more wood species. When creating Yakisugi, the wood must be burned to a precise level before the fire is quenched. For some Yakisugi finishes, the wood surface is then brushed to create a uniform color (anywhere from deep brown to pitch black). Or in the case of a crackle-style burn, the product is left as-is to achieve the maximum effect.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive to intentionally burn wood siding in a region prone to fire, the process forms a protective layer that make it naturally fire-resistant to a much higher level than untreated wood. It also prolongs the life of the wood, and helps it resist insect infestation, water, and decay. For this reason, the technique became a popular way to treat wood used on traditional Japanese townhouses, shrines, and other buildings during the Edo Period, to such an extent that the look itself is now generally associated with pre-war Japan.

The Old Capital

While Tokyo still retains the title of Japan’s current capital city, Kyoto has earned the reputation of being one of the best places in the country to witness the convergence of Japan’s past and future.

Kyoto was largely spared from the destruction of World War II by recommendation of Roosevelt and Truman’s Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson. The city itself is currently home to over 1.4 million people, and is considered the cultural hub of Japan. The city features a dense urban core, but is surrounded by less populated sprawl, much of which features older single-and-two-story buildings interspersed with newer multi-level low-rise structures, often quite narrow in width. Despite the prevalence of newer construction from recent decades, it is easy to spot at least one example of charred wood siding on nearly every city block, whether it be a preserved historical structure or an homage to the past on a new building.

To the east of the city core sits the Higashiyama Ward (meaning Eastern Hills or Mountain), which features some of the best preserved examples of Japanese pre-war architecture, much of which is clad in some capacity with Yakisugi charred siding. Visitors to Japan flock to this area in hopes of experiencing the culture of the past, including visits to tea houses, shops featuring traditional goods, and the chance to spot a Geisha on her way to or from work. In addition, the area features a multitude of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, many of which are considered UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are designated as National Cultural Properties.

Although Kyoto remains one of the best places to witness traditional pre-war architecture, efforts to preserve the traditional Machiya-style buildings have suffered some setbacks in recent years, with many houses in less-historical neighborhoods being demolished to be turned into apartment buildings, or remodeled to look more modern. The tourist sector is also taking a toll on the city, with visitors flocking to historical districts during daylight hours, bringing important revenue but crowding already narrow streets in the process.

Still, there have been many efforts towards preservation in recent years, including a massive restoration project on the large wooden Kiyomizu-dera Temple complex, and a push for city funding through an accommodation tax for visitors. Paradoxically, one of the best ways to visit a preserved Machiya is to visit the Starbucks Coffee location in the Higashiyama District, housed in a restored and preserved structure, complete with shoe-free tatami seating areas on the second level and several small zen gardens throughout the space.

Similar to the Higashiyama Ward, the Arashiyama district in northern Kyoto is home to winding streets and old historical structures. Interspersed within these old structures, however, are renovated and newer buildings that pay homage and respect to the past, while incorporating modern styles into their overall aesthetics. Many of these homes and structures seemingly utilize Yakisugi as a way to respect their cultural past, whether it be on perimeter fencing, wall cladding, or even as accents against stark-white plaster. Much of the work that Hewn Elements accomplishes is centered around this same ideology: Preserving the past by looking towards the future.

At Hewn Elements, we create our Yakisugi/Shou Sugi Ban products on North-American-grown Western Red Cedar and Northwestern Spruce, as well as on innovative offerings from Accoya®. We constantly work towards creating new colors, finishes, and textures, incorporating traditional charring techniques not only as a protective agent, but also as an aesthetic tool to highlight certain characteristics of the wood.

Most of our catalog colors in our Interior Cedar, Exterior Cedar, Northwestern Spruce, and Ohana collections feature some degree of charring and brushing. In addition, we also offer deeper char and crackle textures in our Yakisugi/Shou Sugi Ban collection, and alternatives like Dāku Ban that mimic this darkened look.

Whether you are embracing a dark and sleek modernist look, or you simply wish to add some accent wood elements to highlight a classic style, Yakisugi/Shou Sugi Ban is a great way to achieve a finished image that will defend against the elements, and stand the test of time in both a literal and figurative sense.

Once viewed as a utilitarian necessity in order to prevent wear and destruction, Yakisugi is now an affordable luxury, acting as a bridge between the past and the future