What Makes Hinoki Wood Special?

by Emi Noguchi

What does a 1300-year old UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nara, a sashimi chef’s cutting board, and a waft of “forest bath”-clean essential oil have in common? We (and the title of this post) may have been a little too obvious, but here’s your answer: they’re all made from the fragrant, pink wood of the hinoki cypress tree! The Hinoki cypress is naturally antifungal, bacteria suppresant, and a natural insecticide/ pesticide. All this, and it smells good, too! Whether it’s being used in wood cutting boards, a bathtub, or the Japanese toys you’re about to buy for your niece’s next birthday, hinoki cypress is also beautiful enough to go sans-decor. If trees could win awards for the performing arts, the hinoki would have won their EGOT centuries ago.

What Makes Hinoki Wood Special? 

So just what gives hinoki its edge, you ask? A lot of it comes down to a little chemical compound called hinokitiol. It’s found in many members of the cypress tree family, including junipers and sequoias. Your average cypress tree enjoys moist soil and a humid atmosphere. In such conditions, it pays to have a little protection from bacteria, infection, fungus, and insects. Funnily enough, a scientifically-proven and naturally antifungal, bacteria-stopping wood is also pretty attractive material for making wood cutting boards. Thus, the hinoki cypress cutting board.

Hinoki Wood Cutting Boards

When it comes to cleanliness and food safety, wood cutting boards aren’t generally long-lived. Without resurfacing, grooves and scratches can start to harbor some pretty gnarly bacteria, particularly if the wood doesn’t dry very quickly. Of course, most home cooks aren’t particularly eager to spray down every food surface with harsh and corrosive chemicals after cooking. Wood cutting boards are easy on the eyes, but not the most hygienic spaces for food prep. The hinoki cypress cutting board, on the other hand, does some natural disinfecting for you. It’s no wonder that hinoki cypress is the standard cutting board for sushi chefs! And for you aesthetes out there, hinoki cypress is not only a beautiful pale red hue; it also has a natural scent so good it’s actually bottled.

Long Live the Hinoki Tree!

You may have forgotten, but we did mention earlier that the hinoki cypress tree also was used to build an extremely old UNESCO World Heritage Site, namely, the Horyuji Temple. At 1300 years old, some of the structures at the temple are actually among the oldest wooden structures in the world! This may seem like overkill, but hinoki live long in part because they resist the spread of bacteria, infection, and rot, and we can think of few better, naturally safe raw materials for the toys that your toddler will inevitably chew on. This is stepping a little outside our wheelhouse, though, so let’s return to the stuff of food. In this case, DIY tofu!

Make Your Own Tofu Kit

Make Your Own Tofu Kit

Yes, compared to other proteins, tofu is cheap, and if you live near an East Asian grocery store, you might have access to some fairly fresh homemade stuff. But nothing quite tastes the same as when you make it from scratch. We now have a "make your own tofu" kit on offer, including a hinoki cypress container for food safety and your enjoyment while pressing and straining.

The Beautiful Scent of Hinoki

Since we’d rather not end on the note of “pressing and straining,” let’s take a moment and travel back to days gone by, when one could come across enormous, old-growth hinoki cypress trees in the wild. Today, very few such trees remain, thanks to the hinoki’s many aforementioned appealing properties. In our imaginations, these slow-growing cypress trees have lived forever in natural stands in actual ecosystems. When you press your nose to their long, vertical strips of bark, close your eyes, and breathe in, the air is something that feels like it’s cleaning down your brain. Given its many strengths, there’s a possibility that this hinoki scent really is, quite literally, clearing your mind.

Author Bio

Emi Noguchi is a fiction writer, blogger, and freelance writing instructor, and co-founder of MFA App Review. After studying standard Japanese at Columbia University, she picked up Kansai-ben while living in Osaka and some Awa-ben in her paternal hometown in Tokushima. Emi is a 2020 recipient of the John Weston Award and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. You can read her work in Essay Daily, The Spectacle, and Fairy Tale Review. Emi is currently writing a novel about diasporic illnesses, art-making, and traditional Japanese puppetry.