The dense, dark green forests of the Hida region, surrounded by Japan’s Northern Alps, are home to a woodworking tradition that dates back 1,300 years. In this story, we explore how Hida Sangyo’s holistic use of the cedar tree builds upon legendary craftsmanship to create sustainable innovation and modern furniture.
Vast swathes of untouched forest lands and rugged cliffs cover the mountainous terrain of Japan’s Northern Alps. Japanese cedar (sugi) and cypress (hinoki) trees form a wall of dense green in the Hida region.
Located in the heart of the Hida mountains, the ancient feudal city of Takayama is a time capsule teeming with craft history. With its endless forests and a bountiful supply of high-quality timber, today’s Takayama reveals a natural coexistence with the Hida woods; it is a living testament to the work of generations of legendary wood craftsmen. Rows of wooden houses with latticed bay windows built alongside ancient temples, shrines and craft workshops dot the bucolic streets. Once private homes of wealthy local merchants, these historic buildings assume new life as speciality shops of sake, lacquerware, wooden furniture, miso, and pickled vegetables.
Takayama is also the birthplace of Hida Sangyo, formed by local families in the 1920s. Inspired by the Austrian technique of bending wood popularized by Michael Thonet, the company experimented with different furniture styles, gradually mastering the sleek, sinuous furniture made from the area’s bountiful supply of beech, a wood previously regarded as only good for fuel.
After centuries of producing heavy, hand-carved trunks and chests, the new Hida Sangyo minimalist curvilinear creations gained popularity for their lightweight durability; exports to China and Korea began in the 1920s and to the United States in 1935. But it was not until after World War II that the brand would see an increased interest in furniture domestically.
The war had devastating effects on Hida’s wood reserves; large swaths of forested land were cut down to provide fuel. Then a booming demand for timber to supply reconstruction efforts resulted in more forest loss. Rebuilding the country’s lost wood stocks to protect the countryside from landslides and rain runoff required a large-scale tree planting initiative.
Yet in their haste to solve an economical and environmental problem, the Japanese government created another in their decision to plant two fast-growing evergreen species en masse—hinoki (Japanese cypress) and sugi (Japanese cedar). Easy to plant and quick to grow, they now make up 44 percent of Japan’s total forest cover.
To the team at Hida Sangyo, however, these prolific, problematic Japanese cedar trees were seen as an untapped source of wealth, the tree’s knots a part of the wood’s natural beauty. Under the leadership of Sanzo Okada, who joined the company as President in 2000, Hida Sangyo began wood compression experiments on domestic cedar, a material typically too ductile for furniture.
Okada subscribed to embracing the unique beauty the overabundant cedar could produce in their furniture, and encouraged the company to recognize the potential strength and sustainability it offered.
At first glance, the cedar tree might seem too knotty or overly prone to scratches. However, Masanao Hamaguchi, Hida Sangyo’s Chief of Global Business Development explains: “We have perfected the Austrian bentwood method to harden cedar wood by compressing the tender planks with a large press. We can increase the wood’s density by removing excess space from its cellular structure.”
The wood compression process is laborious, but the cedar’s material transformation is what allows woodworkers to produce more durable furniture. Compression helps the soft wood of the timber become more sturdy and dense. Following compression, its composition is suitable to mold wood into gently rounded shapes and minimalistic lines—eventually taking form in chairs, tables, and shelves imbued with the cedar tree’s refreshing scent.
This ingenuity laid the groundwork for a special collaboration between Sanzo Okada and the celebrated Italian designer, Enzo Mari in 2005. Mari, never one to be pushed about or limited by materials in his designs, accepted Okada’s challenge of working with the overly soft and gnarly wood. Using Hida Sangyo’s revolutionary wood-compression techniques, the collaborators showcased the beauty of the knotted cedar wood in a 20-piece contemporary furniture collection, titled ‘HIDA.’ In 2007, the Hida Sangyo brand exhibited at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, where it received the prestigious Craftsmanship Award.
“Every part of the cedar tree is used,” Hamaguchi says. “Discarded scraps, leaves and branches that can not be used for furniture are distilled into essential oils. For us, this is not only about reducing waste, but instead, paying reverence to our surroundings and embracing the natural cycle of growth and decay.””
This idea of working with cedar and other sustainable domestic products is what ultimately drew designer, Ibuki Kaiyama to Hida Sangyo. “Hida Sangyo has developed a pioneering method to tackle the problem of unmanaged, overrun cedar in Japan’s countryside. What others deem ‘useless waste’ can be crafted into something beautiful,” he says.
Kaiyama’s award-winning “Kinoe” collection, which means “tree branch” in Japanese, emphasizes a tree’s natural shape and texture. “I am interested in exploring furniture and wood products that are born from the connections people have with forests,” continues Kaiyama. “Every part of the tree can be used to create items of value in our daily lives—even the branches.”
Today Kaiyama roams the Nagano forests looking for trees with branches he can use in his whimsical designs. “I want to bring back an appreciation of our surroundings. The branches are a reminder that life isn’t just about the busyness of everyday life, but something to prompt us to pause, to take a minute to enjoy the natural world around us.”
In addition to collaborations with Enzo Mari and Ibuki Kaiyama, Hida Sangyo has partnered with Sori Yanagi, Motomi Kawakami, and more recently Kengo Kuma (architect of the Tokyo National Stadium featured in the 2020 Olympics) to blend traditional Japanese techniques with a contemporary international design aesthetic.
With a mix of time-honored Japanese craftsmanship and modern design sensibilities, it is not hard to see why Hida Sangyo furniture is so beloved. Yet there is a common worry among Hida woodworkers that theirs is an elderly gentleman’s craft; they wonder how to pass on their methods and ways to the younger generation.
To preserve the artform, Hida Sangyo launched the Hida Craftsmen Training School to attract the next generation of woodworkers—both male and female. Students wake up at 5am every morning, prepare their tools and then in the afternoon, study woodworking. Dorming together for two years, these students learn as much about the craft as they observe the attitude of the Hida craftsmen—learning about the traditions of the past while looking for new ways to move forward. Despite its remote mountainous location, hundreds of young people from all over Japan have made the trek to Gifu to learn from the Hida Sangyo woodworking masters.
From its inception, Hida Sangyo has held fast to their time-honored traditions while continually looking for innovative techniques that move them forward, ensuring that their future remains bright, and that a commitment to tradition does lead to innovation.