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 Butsudan refers to Buddhist altars which are produced in Hikone City, Shiga Prefecture. Generously featuring luxurious materials in a 4-shaku (121.2cm) large altar body, Hikone Butsudan is synonymous with a high-grade Buddhist altar. It is characterized by its luxurious and splendid style, rich with Maki-e and gold leaf designs. A coat applied to the front of the altar is capable of enhancing the grain effect of wood. Hikone Butsudan employs an integrated production system by seven professionals (kobu nanashoku) to hand-build a single altar: woodwork (Kijishi), inner sanctuary (Kudenshi), sculpture (Chokokushi), gilding (Hakuoshishi), Maki-e work (Maki-e shi), urushi work (Nushi) metalwork (Kazari-kanamonoshi). It requires at least two months and up to two years to build. In 1975, Hikone Butsudan was designated as a national traditional craft in recognition of its premium quality and prodigious techniques, which was the first national recognition in the industry of Buddhist altar and altar fittings. In recent years it has been making its new venture into smaller Buddhist altar to suit a house with no alter room.


History of Hikone Butsudan is presumed to have harked back to the mid-Edo Period, when artisans began making household altars by capitalizing on their expertise with changes in the city of Edo with gradual stability instead of weapons for wars. Of Hikone Road extending from Hikone Castle town to Nakayama Road, an area set along a winding road called Nanamagari prospered as the center of Buddhist altar production, where a number of artisans gathered and settled. Gaining acclaim as a renowned area of Buddhist altar production and sales, to this day the area has bustled with time-honored companies. Hikone Butsudan started its production to be tailored to respective requirements by combining expertise in urushi work, sculpture and metalwork, which is forerunner of the current integrated production system “kobu nanashoku." The patronage of the Hikone clan and the rise in popularity of household Buddhist altars among commoners led Hikone Butsudan to a roaring industry, allowing steady growth with a long history of over 350 years.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base Hikone Butsudan mainly uses zelkova, Japanese cypress, pine, Japanese cedar, pine and castor aralia for the base of an altar. Careful selection is made by Kijishi. With no design drawing, Hikone Butsudan adopts tenon frame assembly requiring no nails. Dimensions (height, width and depth) of an altar are measured and cut with respect to marks on a measuring stick called tsue. Not having standard dimensions, Hikone Butsudan enables customization requiring a new tsue for an altar according to details of an order.
  2. 2. Kuden (inner sanctuary) and Koran (balustrade) Kuden is a roof above Shumidan where a Buddha statue is enshrined, and Koran is a balustrade attached to Shumidan. Kudenshi prepares small wooden parts and assemble them carefully to build a sanctuary and balustrade. Comprised of over 1,000 pieces, elaborate parts such as Hafu and Koryo require deliberate, precise assembly, even of pillars and roof tiles, just like an actual temple.
  3. 3. Wood sculpture A flower, Buddhist image, bird, animal, clouds or angel is carved deliberately in a wooden piece as a decorative piece for the altar. There are many carving techniques including Maru-bori (carving in three dimensions from a solid block of wood) and Kasane-bori (carving multiple layers of boards to give depth and a three-dimensional appearance). The mixture of carving techniques and a hundred of different kinds of chisels and knives are used for decor carving according to the location of the decorative piece. Carved from a solid wooden piece (Japanese cypress or pine), a transom at the top of the altar is adorned with sculpture and decoration that give a three-dimensional appearance, requiring subtle, outstanding craftsmanship.
  4. 4. Ornamental fine metal Hikone Butsudan uses over 300 metal ornaments in a single altar. Using some engraving techniques, various, exquisite patterns are engraved in copper or brass, sometimes gold or silver, by Kazari-kanamonoshi. The engraving techniques include kebori (hairline engraving for planar patterns) and jibori (engraving for embossed patterns).
  5. 5. Urushi lacquering Urushi lacquering is for Nushi (lacquer painter) to paint the wooden base, inner sanctuary and carved decors with the sap of the Urushi tree. Ground coating on the surface of the base gives the altar higher durability. Urushi lacquering is a repeated process of painting the surface evenly with Urushi (Shitaji, Nakanuri and Uwanuri), levelling and whetting to smooth the surface and provide resonance. Mokumedashi-nuri, which allows a coat applied to the front of the altar to enhance the grain effect of wood, requires proficient skills, defining Hikone Butsudan.
  6. 6. Maki-e Maki-e is a technique of drawing exquisite patterns or designs on the Urushi-painted surface of a waist panel of a shoji sliding door or drawer. Patterns or designs, such as flowers, birds, figures and landscape, are drawn with color lacquer, and then sprinkled with gold, silver and color powder, and abalone shells to deliver an exquisite finish. Traditional Maki-e techniques include Doromori Maki-e (urushi lacquer raised with mud (clay) to apply a three-dimensional appearance) and Togidashi Maki-e (scraping urushi lacquer off the pattern). This process is completed by Maki-e shi.
  7. 7. Kinpakuoshi Featuring its luxurious and splendid style, Hikone Butsudan requires over 1,000 gold leaves layered on the altar. Kinpakuoshi is a gilding technique to layer a gold leaf over the Urushi-painted surface, which is carried by Kinpakuoshi-shi. Layered over the surface with Hakuoshi urushi applied, a gold leaf is gently pushed down with hands. Gilding is very delicate work because a sheen and resonance vary with artisans, requiring subtle craftsmanship.
  8. 8. Assembly Assembly is a final process of Hikone Butsudan. Following processes 1 through 7 respectively performed by seven professionals (kobu nanashoku), all the parts are assembled to complete one altar. With no design drawing, assembly is carried out while obtaining the overall picture and maintaining balance.

Where to Buy & More Information

Hikone-Butsudan Dentoteki Sangyo Kaikan

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