Hiroshima Buddhist altar Hiroshima butsudan
Rare advanced techniques
to create a golden paradise
What is Hiroshima Buddhist altar ?
Hiroshima Butsudan are golden Buddhist altars mainly produced in Hiroshima City, Hiroshima Prefecture. The Buddhist sect, Jodo Shinshu has been widely worshipped in Hiroshima since ancient times, and many golden altars recommended by the sect were produced for its followers. Hiroshima Butsudan is characterized by its sophisticated urushi lacquering techniques and elaborate fine metal ornaments. One of the noteworthy features is the use of whitewash base coating, which is made of local oyster shells that are crushed to fine powder and mixed with lacquer. Hiroshima Butsudan uses the tatenuri technique for top coating. The technique requires very high skills, and lacquering artisans come from all over the country to learn these skills. Inside of the altar is decorated with wood sculptures portraying the life of the holy priest Shinran, as well as the introduction of Buddhism to Japan, and is layered with gold leaf. The gorgeous, golden sheen of the altar expresses Buddhist paradise. There are seven steps in producing Hiroshima Butsudan of which expert craftsmen are responsible for each process. Each part of the altar is hand-built with highly skilled craftsmanship. The traditional arts of Japan is gathered in one Buddhist altar.
Hiroshima Prefecture is known as a historic place where the holy priest Shinran’s disciples founded Kosho-ji Temple and Shorinbo Temple to propogate Jodo Shinshu. The Jodo Shinshu sect found favor among the people in Hiroshima under the wing of the feudal lord Mori, increasing the number of followers and production of Buddhist altars. In 1619, Nagaakira ASANO transferred his domain from Kishu (current Wakayama) to Hiroshima by the Shogunate’s order. The artisans that accompanied him introduced the outstanding urushi lacquering techniques to Hiroshima and provided a progressive improvement in the production techniques of Hiroshima Butsudan. In 1716, Buddhist priest Tonko brought in prodigious techniques of Buddhist altar and altar fittings production from Kyoto and Osaka, and the altar production techniques achieved further sophistication. In the late Edo Period, a number of artisans with adept craftsmanship, such as lacquer painters who painted sword sheaths and artisans who made ornamental metal parts, gathered and settled in Hiroshima, and Buddhist altars using their techniques were produced. In the Meiji Period, Hiroshima Butsudan made inroads into the Kyoto and Osaka regions by virtue of the waterway traffic through the Seto Inland Sea. Its superior quailty was highly valued in various regions, and demand for Hiroshima Butsudan increased. Hiroshima Butsudan flourished even further in the late Taisho Period, and Hiroshima became the largest Buddhist altar production area in Japan. The demand for altars and the number of artisans decreased abruptly and sharply with the devastation of World War II and the atomic bombing. The time-honored traditional techniques however, were revived by surviving artisans and have been passed down to younger generations up to this day.
General Production Process
- 1. Wooden base
Hiroshima Butsudan mainly uses Japanese cedar, Japanese cypress, and pine for the main body of the altar composed of a ceiling, pillars, shoji sliding door, and doors. This process is conducted by the woodturner called kijishi in Japanese. Wood must be dried naturally for over a year to prevent the wood from warping. Dried wooden pieces are tenoned, and the tenon is inserted into a corresponding mortise hole. The parts are assembled with no nails, possessing adequate structural strength against earthquakes and also allowing easy assembly and disassembly on repairing.
- 2. Inner sanctuary
Kuden is the inner sanctuary where the Buddha statue is enshrined, and this process is carried out by the artisan for assembling wooden parts called kudenshi. Wooden pieces are carved with exquisite patterns and small parts called masu are made. The small parts are carefully assembled in tiers and glued together with animal glue.
- 3. Wood sculpture
Using a pattern paper, the design is directly drawn onto the base, and different kinds of chisels and knives are used for decor carving. The carvers change depending on the location of the decorative piece. The samashi is in charge of carving transoms, and the shumidanshi is in charge of carving the platform called shumidan. Decor carving requires subtle, outstanding craftsmanship with meticulous care in 7 to 10 days of work.
- 4. Carving the table around the platform
With the design directly drawn onto the wood, a table around the platform is hand-carved.
- 5. Lacquering
Urushi lacquering involves a repeated process of painting the wooden base with urushi lacquer. Ground coating with polishing powder enhances the strength, followed by repeated painting with urushi lacquer, and finally the ground-coated surface is evenly coated with refined natural urushi lacquer. Hiroshima Butsudan uses two types of urushi lacquer for the final coating; black lacquer and clear lacquer. A beautiful black gloss can be obtained with the black lacquer, while clear lacquer enhances the grain effect of wood. This process is carried out by the nushi (lacquer painter).
- 6. Ornamental fine metal
The metal fittings' craftsman handcrafts the numerous fine metal ornaments of the Buddhist altar such as the hinges and handles of drawers. Copper or brass is used for metal ornaments, as engraving complex and exquisite patterns is easy and they can be easily plated. Various patterns are drawn on the metal sheets from a paper template and the sheets are engraved with a Tagane chisel to create a three-dimensional effect. The engraved fine metal is then plated with gold or silver. Special techniques are required to color the metal ornaments black, brown, or blue.
- 7. Maki-e
Maki-e is a technique of hand-drawing exquisite patterns or designs using a special brush, which is completed by the maki-e shi. A defining pattern is drawn with urushi lacquer and then sprinkled with fine gold powder before it dries. The timing to sprinkle gold powder is quite difficult and is judged by the artisan's years of experience and intuition. Taka maki-e which is one of Hiroshima Butsudan's prominent techniques, is raising the maki-e design pattern using a mixture of polishing powder and animal glue. This creates a three-dimensional appearance to the pattern and gives the Buddhist altar a luxurious feel.
- 8. Gilding
Gold leaf is carefully layered over the lacquered and moderately-dried inside of the altar. Gold leaf is only 0.1 micron thick and is extremely susceptible to even a slight breeze. This is why utmost caution and concentration is necessary to lay each square gold leaf with no space in between. Decorating a complicated shaped carved pattern with gold leaf is especially delicate and arduous work, requiring honed craftsmanship.
- 9. Assembly
The parts made respectively are assembled and the altar is completed as a product. The metal ornaments are hammered on and the whole altar is polished. It takes at least two months to complete one altar.
Where to Buy & More Information
Hiroshima Kencho Higashikan Tenji Lobby
ClosedSaturdays, Mondays, national holidays, around the New Year
Business Hours8:30am to 5:15pm
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