Iiyama Buddhist altar

Iiyama Buddhist altar Iiyama butsudan

Stunning design with stereoscopic effects
that reflect the Buddhist mindset


What is Iiyama Buddhist altar ?

Iiyama Butsudan refers to Buddhist altars and altar fittings which are made in and around Iiyama City, Nagano Prefecture. Home to Iiyama Butsudan, Iiyama City had been noted for the grounding with devout faith since ancient times, which underlays the tradition of altar production.
Iiyama Butsudan is characterized by its unique Yumi Nageshi style applied to allow elaborate Maki-e decorations and the beautiful inner sanctuary to be clearly visible. Adorned with three-dimensional gold leaves, Maki-e is applied with repeated coatings of urushi lacquer to give a gentle finish. An arched Nageshi wooden piece above the inner sanctuary facilitates worship before the sanctuary. As subtle, follower-friendly Buddhist altars, Iiyama Butsudan is endowed with passion for Buddhism culture developed in Iiyama City. Passions and prodigious techniques led Iiyama Butsudan to a national recognition as traditional craft in 1975, and today it has shipments of 1,000 altars a year.


The provenance of Iiyama Butsudan is unknown, but there is an anecdote that Shigetaka TERASE moved to Iiyama City from Kofu City, Yamanashi Prefecture in 1689 and built an unfinished wood Buddhist altar.
Iiyama City is renowned for a place where Jodo Shinshu was introduce in the Muromachi Period and the castle town that has flourished since the construction of Iiyama Castle by devout Buddhist Uesugi Kenshin during the Warring States Period, which is proven to have been the thriving religious community even before the beginning of Iiyama Butsudan. Buddhist altars in harmony with nature and Buddhism can be the natural extension.
The then unfinished wood Buddhist altar altars were transformed into the current stately style with urushi coating in the Edo Period, and they established themselves as artifacts during the late Edo period by master artisan Kisaku INABA. With 150 artisans, today Iiyama City is a national leading area of altar production while carrying on the torch.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base This process is of making the frame of a Buddhist altar. Iiyama Butsudan mainly uses Japanese white pine, Japanese cedar and Japanese Judas, but Japanese cypress for luxurious altars.
    Carefully selected, wood is provided with protrusions and recesses for male and female assembly parts. The wooden base is built to enable easy assembly and disassembly in refurbishment such as repainting the old parts.
  2. 2. Kuden (inner sanctuary) Kuden is an inner wooden sanctuary which is located in the center of a Buddhist altar. An inner sanctuary involves careful assembly of elaborate parts by virtue of artisan’s outstanding craftsmanship and requires more elaborateness for larger altars. The dual sanctuary style is seen in most of the large altars. The incorporation of an ancon bracket is the unique technique that characterizes the inner sanctuary of Iiyama Butsudan, which allows easy assembly and disassembly when the ancon is removed.
  3. 3. Wood sculpture A flower, plant, bird, or animal is carefully carved in the top of Iiyama Butsudan’s feature wooden Yumi Nageshi using dozens of different kinds of chisels and knives.
  4. 4. Urushi lacquering Urushi lacquering is a repeated process of painting the surface evenly with Urushi (Shitanuri, Nakanuri and Roiro-nuri) and burnishing to smooth the surface, delivering a glossy finish and providing resonance to Iiyama Butsudan.
  5. 5. Ornamental fine metal Ornamental fine metal is handcrafted for Buddhist altars, with various patterns engraved in a copper or brass sheet. A noteworthy feature is metal processing with ume plum vinegar to give metal ornaments greater durability.
  6. 6. Gofunmori Maki-e Maki-e is a technique of drawing exquisite patterns or designs such as peacock, tree peony and phoenix on the Urushi-painted surface. Whitewash made from seashells, called gofun, is used as pigment, raising the pattern to apply a three-dimensional appearance. Painted with whitewash, the Maki-e pattern is sprinkled with gold powder, imparting elegant and distinctive expressions to Iiyama Butsudan.
  7. 7. Hakuoshi Hakuoshi is of great importance to maintain a beautiful altar in perfect conditions with enduring attraction. It is a gilding technique to layer a gold leaf carefully over the Urushi-painted surface before urushi lacquer dries. This very delicate work is finished with wiping a gold-leafed object with floss silk.
  8. 8. Assembly Assembly is a final process of Buddhist altar production. The condition of the wooden base and urushi lacquering is checked thoroughly, and ornamental fine metal is hammered with copper or brass which is the same kind of the metal ornament for rust prevention. All the checked parts are assembled to complete one altar.

Where to Buy & More Information

Iiyama Dento Sangyo Kaikan

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