Working on a new project, I visited my favorite wood supplier in Japan, where I’ve been buying for 10 years. A small family business they offer the widest section of rare woods from all over Japan including some imported woods.
I never feel dull there, and I never go alone either. I am always accompanied by my builder as its their policy. The regiment of Japan never ceases to amaze me, nor the dedication to work commitment. Three staff meet me from my builders side. The site manager, the person responsible for material control from the constructors’ company, and the person who is responsible for the financial control over the project.
Before I arrive the woods are already prepared in advance and there are three boards waiting and ready, tamo, hinoki and one other wood.
My interest lies in the hinoki wooden board that will be used for a counter in a new test kitchen space. The other woods are not suitable for counters in the new project. In Japan something small takes plenty of time and discussion, and something important, oh well just as much and more. I won’t get into it but formality is never lost in Japanese conversation as the commentary extends itself automatically. I sit back, watch and listen, not following the conversation I get lost in studying the oversized band saw.
I begin to study more carefully the hinoki counter offered, and I find the grain is slightly yellowish, and there are some small oils at the surface. I ask about the surface oils and they explain the oils disappear in the shaving of the top surface. But with more careful attention to the grain, I see it is too wavy and the grain is ita. This grain is too wavy and is not suitable. I begin to reject the wood plank in my mind, and it doesn’t stop there now that I raided a question about the grain. The constructors technician from our side side goes off and re-appears with a wooden plane. Checking the grain in more detail, we cannot plane the actual board in question, however there is a cutting that we can check from the same lot.
The selection of wood is more complicated than it looks, in most cases careful inspection is required to spot “whoo-shee”, knots in the wood whatever their size. The idea of a knot wouldn’t bother most people but when it comes to a counter, it impacts the price dramatically.
The knot can be any size and its a problem. But a knot is not always a problem, or is it? Yes a knot is almost forbidden, so in order to understand whether or not it can be removed the staff flip over the wood and check it on both sides. These knots are caused by branch growth, if the branch is superficial a surface knot appears and can be planed off in the finishing. If the knot is more serious it shows signs on both sides of the plank and its a “no go.”
The next battle is the overall length, in most woods there are parts of the plank that are useful, and others that make it problematic because of imperfections. This is one challenge. The next is the width and so measuring a plank’s potential having taken into account all the issues makes it more difficult to match the size with the counter.
The plank is sometimes massive, or in some cases just the right size, or just a tad too short. When measuring a plank you have to respect a borders that get cut off. The border is approximately 5cm, it must be respected to avoid splintering during the final saw cut. The sawing can causes some small cracking, so there is some cutting tolerance seen by the blue tape. This is the actual size of the counter and the tape is used to select the best area for the counter’s cut.
The 2 ton crane muscles wood as it moves above us. The manager of the warehouse controls its movement by a hand controller. Digging through piles of wood, he searches a hinoki from Gifu prefecture, and I am warned its “takai” and I am thinking, its expensive for sure. But I insist of finding masa, the grain in hinoki that makes the quality.
The warehouse is beaming with sunshine, its warm today and its the first time I’ve been here in warm weather. Usually when I come its winter and the weather is freezing cold.
The choice of wood in this warehouse is vast and my architect is sure to tell me, that they are one of the best in the business, which I already know. We speak about woods and their oils and as an interesting footnote; in Japan woods are soaked for one year after arriving to the warehouse to remove all the oils. Once this is done, the woods can become very dry otherwise they do not dry.
Wood comes in so many forms, Mother Nature at its best and I am searching masa, hinoki from Nara one the highest quality, a pinkish grain is the signature. This is the type used in temples conservation and construction. The particular parts “who-shee”, the knots and no one wants knots in the wood, and especially for a high-end counter.
Today I see something that tweaks my interest, a restaurant, two star Michelin bying a new high-end counter. The prestige of any sushi chef or kappo (counter) chef is the counter. I get it, they are buying the best, a 4 meter wooden counter 6cm thick, and of the highest quality for a whopping 5.5 million yen. I cringe at the price, yet I understand that most of the high-end wood goes to Ise Shrine and the nagoya castle that was damaged and is under repair and restoration.
In Ise Shrine’s 1,300-year-old tradition, there are 65 wooden buildings, including the Inner Ise Shrine, which houses one of the three sacred treasures, the Yata no Kagami Sacred Mirror, and the Outer Ise Shrine, are rebuilt and roughly 1,500 sacred treasures, including weapons and furnishings, are moved into the new buildings.
It takes eight years to complete the whole process, since traditional methods and conventions have to be complied with. The total cost amounts to ¥55 billion, all of which is provided through donations from citizens.
There are 5,500 hectares of natural forest within the grounds of the shrine in southern Ise and cypress trees have been planted there for future harvesting as construction material.
Every 20 years, 65 structures there are rebuilt top to bottom from high quality hinoki. The ritual is a symbol of religious renewal that consumes 10,000 of the finest trees and Kiso supplies three-quarters of them. Over a period of more than 1,000 years, Ise Jingu and other shrines, temples and traditional buildings have almost erased large natural hinoki trees from Japan. It takes 400 years or more for the trees to grow for these projects. These Hinoki grow wild only in Japan and Taiwan, and is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as near-threatened.
Wood and especially woods such as hinoki or Jindai sugi are rare and as expensive as a high-end car. It is all a matter of size and quality. The grain speaks for itself and you just need to understand (through looking) what is what. There are no short cuts when the wood is golden, and in the Japanese tradition its for a good reason.
I am searching masa which is those lines in the woods grain and that’s tougher and tougher to find. The hunt goes on, as I reject board after board and finally I move to my faithful constructor’s warehouse and see the most exquisite wood.
I walk in and its waiting in the warmth of the daylight. It’s masa and not only, its yoshino hinoki one of the finest. The grain is masa and it’s gorgeous.
The warehouse staff and excited by the level of interest I have in the wood and during our warehouse visit I had noted the aromas of the wood. I am watching a covered wooden plank by a soft plush blanket and I say, “so whats under here” and they smile. Removing the wood is a massive counter top, 10cm+ thick. It’s an impeccable wooden top that will be used in a new sushi counter in Tokyo. The wood is immaculate and will used for a cutting board that covers the chefs working area. I cannot show it for security reasons but trust me it is amazing.
I stop myself before they cover it over, and for a second as I put my nose to the plank. I say, this is problematic for a chef and they ask why. I say it has the most aromatic qualities and no one flinches. The warehouse chief has his staff take a plane and chew some of the surface of my new counter plank.
The wood smells elegantly and it has the most delicate unique medicinal qualities and I feel stunned. It reminds me and in a serious way why hinoki is so very important to human health. This hinoki is superb and I feel humbled.
I am ready to leave and I see the staff shaving yet another wooden plank, its small less than a meter and narrow as much as 10 cm. It is the bottom side of a tool they use. I see them laughing as they stick their nose to the board to get a whiff. I walk over and they offer me a smell, an unusual event but a-propo for my visit. It has a strong heavy aromas f cedar and its red, ah, I get it as I say “American oak.” Nothing to compare yet cedar is used in the Americas for closets to store safely cloths. It all makes sense, hinoki is medicinal and has the most extraordinary qualities. If you can bath in hinoki, it is an experience you’ll never forget.
But before we leave, there is a hot top pick of debate. Hinoki isn’t just beautiful; it isn’t rare for just any reason. The debate is over the care needed for hinoki and that’s always a challenge for any chef. Clients rarely understand the level of care needed, and the delicate nature of hinoki. It stains instantly and for clients/users its not their problem. Most people in the west haven’t the depth of tradition many Japanese have for wood, but in Japan the new generation have very little idea as well.
So we’ve found a solution a coating, yet coatings often change the color of hinoki and it changes the entire effect. If the wood is coated it usually is wet looking and has a slight noticeable difference. Voila we have it, a special secret coating that works and the task of solving the stain challenge is done. We start with water and let it sit though I insist we should use shoyu.
The next challenge is welches drink and shoyu and we drop some on top of the hinoki wood and let it sit. The unprotected area definitely stains and getting stains out from natural high-grade hinoki is a serious issue especially if its shoyu.
The search and rescue is completed, and now it will come down to the finishing touches to make a counter that impresses anyone who has seen the best.