Hiroshima Buddhist altar Hiroshima butsudan
The Pure Land embodied in a golden sheen
Integrated achievement of traditional arts veiled in a profound gloss of natural urushi lacquer
What is Hiroshima Buddhist altar ?
Hiroshima Butsudan refers to golden Buddhist altars which are mainly produced in Hiroshima City, Hiroshima Prefecture. Hiroshima has always been the land where the Jodo Shinshu sect is widely worshipped since ancient times, prodding sect-recommended golden altars into vigorous production for its followers.
Hiroshima Butsudan is characterized by its honed urushi lacquering techniques and elaborate fine metal ornaments. One of the noteworthy features is the use of Gofun-shitaji, which is made of local staple oyster shells that are crushed to fine powder and mixed with lacquer. Hiroshima Butsudan employs the Tatenuri technique for top coating (Uwanuri) in urushi work. The technique requires prodigious craftsmanship, and it is reckoned as a model that urushi artisans come from all over the country to learn. Decorated with wood sculptures portraying life of Shinran Shonin (holy priest) and the introduction of Buddhism, the inside of the altar is layered over with gold leaf carefully but gracefully. A gorgeous, golden sheen from the altar presents the Pure Land.
Hiroshima Butsudan employs an integrated production system by seven respective expert craftsmen called nanasho to hand-build an altar. Single Hiroshima Butsudan witnesses Japanese traditional arts together.
Hiroshima Prefecture is known as where Shinran’s disciples founded Kosho-ji Temple and Shorinbo Temple to promulgate Shinran’s faith. The Jodo Shinshu sect found favor among the people in Hiroshima under the wing of the feudal lord Mori clan, increasing the number of followers and allowing Buddhist altar production into high gear.
In 1619, Nagaakira ASANO transferred the domain from Kishu to Hiroshima by the Shogunate’s order, when accompanying artisans introduced the outstanding urushi lacquering techniques to Hiroshima to provide a progressive improvement in the production techniques of Hiroshima Butsudan. It was in 1716 when the altar production techniques achieved further sophistication in keeping with the prodigious techniques of Buddhist altar and altar fitting production brought in from Kyoto and Osaka by monk Tonko.
In the late Edo Period, a number of artisans with adept craftsmanship, such as Nushi (painter who coated a sword sheath with lacquer) and Kazari-kanagushi (hardware maker), gathered and settled in Hiroshima, leading to Buddhist altar production utilizing respective quality techniques.
In the Meiji Period, Hiroshima Butsudan made inroads into the Kyoto and Osaka regions by virtue of the waterway traffic through the Inland Sea and found favor with various regions for its superior quality, fueling demand for Hiroshima Butsudan. Attaining fame as the Japan’s largest Buddhist altar producer, Hiroshima flourished even further in the late Taisho Period.
The demand for altars and the number of artisans plummeted abruptly and sharply with the devastation of the atomic bombing in the World War II. The time-honored traditional techniques, however, were revived by surviving artisans and have been through the generations to this day.
General Production Process
- 1. Wooden base
Hiroshima Butsudan mainly uses Japanese cedar, Japanese cypress, and pine for the main body of an altar composed of a ceiling, pillars, shoji sliding door, and doors. This process is conducted by Kijishi (woodturner). Wood must be dried naturally over a year not to warp as it dries out.
Dried wooden pieces are tenoned (hozogumi), which a tenon is inserted into a corresponding mortise hole to joint together with no nails, possessing adequate structural strength against an earthquake and allowing easy assembly and disassembly in refurbishment such as repainting a defective part.
- 2. Kuden (inner sanctuary)
Kuden is an inner sanctuary where a Buddha statue (principal image) is enshrined, and this process is carried out by Kudenshi (artisan for assembling wooden parts). Carved with exquisite patterns, wooden pieces are made into a small part called masu. Elaborate, small parts are carefully assembled in tiers by the masugumi technique and glued together (nikawa glue).
- 3. Wood sculpture
With a design directly drawn onto the base, dozens of different kinds of chisels and knives are used for decor carving according to the location of the decorative piece. Samashi is in charge of carving transoms, and Shumidanshi of carving a platform called Shumidan. Decor carving requires subtle, outstanding craftsmanship with meticulous care in 7 to 10 days of work.
- 4. Shokugata
With a design directly drawn onto a wooden piece, a table around the platform is hand-carved.
- 5. Urushi lacquering
Urushi lacquering involves a repeated process of painting the wooden base with urushi lacquer: ground coating with polishing powder (Shitanuri) to enhance strength, repeated painting with urushi lacquer (Nakanuri) and final painting the ground-coated surface evenly with refined urushi lacquer (Honnuri).
Hiroshima Butsudan uses two types of urushi lacquer, Kuro urushi (black lacquer) and Suki urushi (refined clear lacquer). Black lacquer delivers high-gloss black to the altar, while refined clear lacquer enhances the grain effect of wood. This process is carried out by Nushi (lacquer painter).
- 6. Ornamental fine metal
This process is of handcrafting a number of fine metal ornaments of a Buddhist altar such as hinges and handles of drawers, which is carried out by Kazari-kanagushi (hardware maker).
Capable of engraving complex and exquisite patterns and plating easily, a copper or brass sheet is used for metal ornaments. Various patterns are drawn on the metal sheet from a paper template and engraved using a Tagane chisel to create a three-dimensional effect. Engraved fine metal is finished gold- or silver-plated. The 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 called makie fude, which is completed by Maki-e shi. A defining pattern is drawn with Urushi lacquer and then sprinkled with fine gold powder before it dries to deliver an exquisite finish. The right timing of sprinkling gold powder is judged by the artist’s years of experience and intuition.
Noted as a honed technique, Taka Maki-e raises the Maki-e design pattern above the surface through a mixture of polishing powder and nikawa glue, applying a three-dimensional appearance to the pattern and yielding a deep beauty to Hiroshima Butsudan.
- 8. Hakuoshi
Hakuoshi is a gilding technique to layer a gold leaf carefully over the moderately-dried, Urushi-painted inside of the altar, which is carried out by Nushi. Hammered into thin sheets in 0.1micron thick, a gold leaf is used for decoration. Gold leaf is extremely susceptible to a breeze, which requires utmost caution and concentration while laying square, ultrathin gold leaf by aligning the edges with no space between gold leaves. Especially decorating a complicated shaped sculpture with a gold leaf is very delicate and arduous work, requiring honed craftsmanship.
Where to Buy & More Information
Hiroshima Kencho Higashikan Tenji Lobby
ClosedSaturday, Monday, Public holiday, Year end and new year holidays
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