My mind automatically processes the word "sawara" as a fish, the English name of which is Spanish mackerel.

A popular recipe that uses sawara is "saikyo yaki," which is made by broiling the fish that has been marinated in sweet miso paste called "saikyo miso."

But sawara is also the name of a tree--Chamaecyparis pisifera--or "sawara cypress." In Japan, the timber has been traditionally fashioned into "ohitsu" (container for cooked rice) and bathtubs. But its light weight and soft texture has rendered it inappropriate as pillars, beams, girders and other construction materials.

In the Chichibu district of Saitama Prefecture, sawara cypresses that were planted before World War II have reached their cutting cycle.

Shinji Kaneko, 59, who runs a local lumber company started by his grandfather, came up with the idea of making coffins of sawara cypress.

"Chinese makers currently dominate the wood coffin market, but I wondered if we couldn't use our own wood for coffins for local consumption," he said. "I thought it'd make people happy to make their 'final trip' in the bosom of trees from their hometown."

Kaneko's idea is supported by the city of Chichibu, which has been promoting a policy to "educate" residents to love their native trees. Every newborn baby is presented with a toy, made of local wood by local craftsmen. The city also provides employment support for people looking to work in the lumber industry.

When Kaneko made a prototype coffin, a city employee lay in it to test its feel.

And to test its incineration, a public crematorium was used. The ideal product Kaneko envisioned had to burn fast, and produce little smoke and cinders. He made repeated improvements.

According to Kiyoshi Baba, 54, deputy director of the Tokyo Toy Museum, which promotes "wood-loving education," the institution has a program called "Wood Start" to expose newborn babies to wood products. More than 30 local governments are enrolled in this program.

But any program to use local wood in sending the deceased off on their final journey is extremely rare. Baba has given it the name of "Wood End."

Kaneko graciously showed me a sawara cypress coffin in his workshop. The whiteness of the wood was crisp and clean, and the coffin felt gentle and warm to the touch. The little window on the lid, from which the deceased's face can be seen, was covered with a piece of traditional "Chichibu Meisen" fabric that had a sheen typical of silk.

I hoped for a time when every lumber-producing region in Japan will have its own "locally produced coffin."

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 28

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.