Hikone Buddhist altar

Hikone Buddhist altar Hikone butsudan

Endowed with high-class gold lacquer
Radiating an aura of magnificence


What is Hikone Buddhist altar ?

Hikone Buddhist Altars (called Hikone Butsudan in Japanese) are produced in the city of Hikone, Shiga prefecture. Using luxurious materials in altar bodies which are usually larger than 121.2 cm, this craft is synonymous with high-grade Buddhist altars and is famous for its rich and splendid maki-e and gold leaf designs. A coat of lacquer is applied to the front of the altar in order to enhance the wood grain effect. This craft uses an integrated production system of professionals from seven different kinds of specializations to hand build a single altar: woodwork, inner sanctuary, sculpture, gilding, maki-e, lacquering, and metalwork. Approximately two months to two years is required to finish building one altar. In 1975, Hikone Buddhist Altars was designated as a national traditional craft in recognition of its premium quality and excellent techniques. This was the first national recognition for Buddhist altars and altar fittings. Recently, smaller Buddhist altars are being made to suit houses that do not have rooms for Buddhist altars.


Hikone Buddhist Altars have a history of more than three hundred and fifty years and are thought to date back to the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868). At the time, the artisans who had produced weapons and armors for wars, needed to find a new source of income as the society stabilized, so they used their techniques for home Buddhist altars. On the road that connects the castle town of Hikone and Nakayama road, there is an area set along a winding path called Nanamagari where many artisans gathered and settled, and this area prospered as the center of Buddhist altar production. This area still bustles with long established shops that produce and sell Buddhist altars today. Hikone Buddhist Altars started its production by combining expertise in lacquerwork, sculpture, and metalwork, which is the precursor of the current division of labor production system called kobu shichishoku. The financial support of the Hikone clan and the rise in popularity of household Buddhist altars among the general public led Hikone Buddhist Altars to become a successful local industry that is still in existence today.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base For the altar base, Hikone Buddhist Altars mainly use zelkova, Japanese cypress, pine, Japanese cedar, or castor aralia, which are carefully selected by specialist wood artisans. Without using a design drawing, a tenon frame requiring no nails is assembled. The dimensions of an altar are measured and cut by using a measuring stick called tsue where all the measurements are marked in. As there are no standard dimensions, a new measuring stick is made each time a new Buddhist altar is made based on the details of an order.
  2. 2. Inner sanctuary and balustrade The kuden is the part with a roof where the Buddha statue is enshrined and is placed above the Shumidan platform, while a koran is a balustrade attached to the platform. The kuden-shi (inner sanctuary specialist) prepares small wooden parts and assembles them carefully. Comprised of over a thousand pieces, elaborate parts require deliberate, precise assembly, even of pillars and roof tiles, just like an actual temple.
  3. 3. Carving in wood The carving specialist carves the decorative parts of the altar. There are many carving techniques including maru-bori which is carving a three dimensional sculpture from a solid block of wood, and kasane-bori where multiple layers of boards are carved to give depth. Flowers, Buddha images, birds, animals, clouds or heavenly maidens are carved carefully, using a hundred different kinds of chisels and knives. The designs and techniques used differ depending on the location of the decorative piece. The transom at the top of the altar is especially where delicate and outstanding techniques are required. A solid wooden piece of Japanese cypress or pine is adorned with sculptures and decorations to give a three-dimensional appearance.
  4. 4. Metal ornaments Hikone Buddhist Altars use over three hundred metal ornaments for a single altar. Various exquisite patterns are engraved in copper or brass, sometimes gold or silver, by gilding specialists using engraving techniques. These techniques include hairline engraving for planar patterns and engraving for embossed patterns.
  5. 5. Lacquering The lacquer artisan paints the wooden base, inner sanctuary, and carved decor with natural lacquer. Applying lacquer on the surface of the altar base gives higher durability. Lacquering is a repeated process of painting the surface evenly with Japanese lacquer, levelling, whetting, and polishing. This repeated process provides a deep elegance unique to lacquered crafts. Mokumedashi-nuri, which allows a coat applied to the front of the altar to enhance the grain effect of wood, requires a lot of skill and is a specialty of this craft.
  6. 6. Maki-e Maki-e is a process of drawing exquisite patterns or designs on the lacquer painted surface of a sliding door panel or drawer. Designs such as flowers, birds, human figures, and landscapes, are drawn with colored lacquer. Then gold, silver, or color powders are sprinkled over the lacquer and abalone shells are sometimes applied to deliver an exquisite finish. Traditional maki-e techniques such as doro mori maki-e where lacquer is raised with clay to obtain a three-dimensional appearance and togidashi maki-e where the lacquer and powder are polished off slightly, are used.
  7. 7. Gilding For its luxurious and splendid style, over a thousand sheets of gold leaf are used to make one altar. Kinpaku oshi is a gilding technique of layering gold leaf over the lacquer painted surface. The gold leaf are gently pushed down over a surface where hakuoshi lacquer has been applied. Gilding is delicate work because the sheen and resonance vary with artisans.
  8. 8. Assembly After the first seven steps have been done by seven different artisans, all the parts are assembled to complete an altar. As there is no design drawing, the artisan assembles the altar while envisioning the completed piece in his mind.

Where to Buy & More Information

Hikone-Butsudan Dentoteki Sangyo Kaikan

See more Household Buddhist altars

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