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An Ode To Japan's Undiscovered, Aromatic Hiba Wood

By Guan Tan

A series of Aomori Hiba wood products from Cul de Sac, Tokyo. From left: a side table, reed diffuser, wood candle, and a stool.
 
Cul de Sac/ Atomi/ Felicia Yap
A series of Aomori Hiba wood products from Cul de Sac, Tokyo. From left: a side table, reed diffuser, wood candle, and a stool.

Tucked away in the quiet, residential district of Nakameguro, Tokyo is a small, independent store with a wooden facade named Cul de Sac. The store was founded in 2011, and in its earlier years, it retailed genderless, slow fashion. Later in 2015, founder Mineko Muraguchi introduced a series of essential oils and mists, made from the extracts of Hiba, an aromatic wood native to northern Japan's Aomori prefecture. 

"Growing up, I have always been surrounded by Hiba because my father runs an Aomori Hiba lumbering business," Muraguchi quips. The Hiba was (and remains) one of the rarer and coveted materials for Japanese architecture. 

"Aomori Hiba is highly valued in the construction industry," Muraguchi explains. "It has been used in various important cultural properties like the Golden Hall of Chusonji in the Iwate prefecture, Kakegawa Castle in the Shizuoka prefecture, and the Izumo Shrine in Shimane prefecture," Muraguchi lists. These architectural feats date back to 1124, 1469, and 1744 respectively. 

Cul de Sac/ AtomiVarying sizes of Hiba wood stools, prices range from S$380 to S$580.
Varying sizes of Hiba wood stools, prices range from S$380 to S$580.
Cul de Sac/ AtomiSquare Hiba wood stools. Prices range from S$780 to S$1,080.
Square Hiba wood stools. Prices range from S$780 to S$1,080.

For that, local authorities in the Edo period (1603 to 1868) imposed strict regulations against the logging of these valuable trees. The forests where Hiba trees were grown were reclaimed by the state, and remains state-owned till date. Regulations protect these trees from mass-production — they germinate and grow naturally, and can only be felled with permits when they fully mature. From end to end, the entire life cycle requires 250 years at least. When they do mature, lumbers and manufacturers have to bid for logging permits from the authorities. 

The Japanese craftsmen covet Hiba for its longevity and aromatic qualities. "Since long ago, Aomori Hiba has been recognised for being rot-resistant and highly durable. Therefore, it was used as a building material," Muraguchi explains. "Back then, people didn't have access to insect repellents and antiseptics. But people knew the Aomori Hiba." Its aroma repels pests and deodorises — which made it apt for public architecture and residences. 

Despite strict conservation regulations, the Aomori Hiba wood supply continues to dwindle — perhaps due to the lack of restoration and awareness projects. "Aomori Hiba is definitely decreasing in quantities now. Even though it's valued as a building material, I believe its worth is not sufficiently appreciated in Japan," Muraguchi continues. "I wanted more people to know about this tree. Therefore, I created a brand that just uses Aomori Hiba." 

Cul de Sac/ AtomiA Hiba reed diffuser, available at S$98.
A Hiba reed diffuser, available at S$98.
Cul de Sac/ AtomiA Hiba wood candle, available at S$98.
A Hiba wood candle, available at S$98.

Muraguchi notes that the current crop of Hiba wood available in the market dates back to the Edo period — their seeds were sown approximately 250 years ago. Likewise, the Hiba home products retailing in Cul de Sac stems from the same generation of trees. They range from stools, side tables, candles, insoles, closet deodorants, diffusers, to incense and oils. 

Majority of the customers are Japanese, "but recently there has been an increase in customers who come all the way from overseas for our products. Among them are Singaporean customers as well." With every customer, Muraguchi hopes to draw awareness to the dwindling number of Hiba trees in Aomori today and the urgent need for more revival programmes. "Last year, the Regional Forest Office finally started on an Aomori Hiba restoration project." To Muraguchi, that is merely the beginning. "Little by little, to the best of my ability, I hope to work towards spreading the appeal of Aomori Hiba to make such restoration campaigns more widely adopted." 

Cul de Sac's Aomori Hiba products are available at Atomi, 333A Orchard Road