Kanazawa Buddhist altar Photo:Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League

Kanazawa Buddhist altar Kanazawa butsudan

Elaborate gold lacquer and gold leaves decorations
A luxury delivered by the culture of Kaga and traditional techniques


What is Kanazawa Buddhist altar ?

Kanazawa Butsudan refers to Buddhist altars which are made in Kanazawa City, Ishikawa Prefecture. Rich culture exhibiting the Kaga clan’s power, which was established and fostered in Kanazawa commonly known as Kaga Hyakumangoku, and prodigious techniques developed by Saikudokoro (handicraft workshop) have been handed down until today. Kanazawa Butsudan gained a national recognition as traditional craft in 1976.
It is characterized by its splendid style, rich with Kaga Maki-e techniques that are valued highly as artistic handicraft. All the parts of a Buddhist altar, such as front and center pillars and back of a door panel, are adorned with exquisite Maki-e patterns including Migaki Maki-e and Taka Maki-e. Home to gold leaf, Kanazawa is renowned nationally as the main producer of high-quality gold leaf, which allows for easier availability. An abundance of quality gold leaf enhances the lure of Kanazawa Butsudan. With Uneri Nageshi (a curve, horizontal piece of wood) under a transom, a top door and shoji paper door mounted on a rotating shaft, ebony wood sculpture in the round, and incrustation with coral and ivory, unique techniques add more attractiveness.


History of Kanazawa Butsudan is presumed to have harked back to the late 17th century, when the third lord of the Kaga clan, Maeda Toshitsune, attracted a number of artisans from Kyoto and Osaka to be trained at Kaga clan’s handicraft workshops called Saikudokoro. It is believed that Saikudokoro was categorized into 23 groups such as Maki-e work, Urushi work, metal work, incrustation and swordsmith. Artifact produced in Saikudokoro were dedicated to the Shogun family, noble family and temples and used as an Imperial gift. Many talented artisans appeared one after another, and some of them were involved in Buddhist altar production while upholding the techniques developed by Saikudokoro.
The Kaga Domain had a long history and strong tie with Buddhism. In 1471, a priest of the Jodo Shinshu sect Rennyo, referred to as the restorer of the Honganji Temple, established Yoshizaki Gobo in Yoshizaki of Minami Kaga (current Awara City in Fukui Prefecture), which propelled the Jodo Shinshu sect into widespread adoption throughout the Hokuriku region. In the Edo Period, the Kaga clan encouraged every household to own an altar in keeping with the religious policies (religious reform) of the Tokugawa Shogunate, allowing the Kaga Domain to have a grounding in easier altar proliferation compared with other areas.

General Production Process

Kanazawa Buddhist altar - General Production Process Photo:Kanazawa city

  1. 1. Wooden base This process includes making the exterior of a Buddhist altar, Shumi (a stand on which a Buddha statue is enshrined), main pillars, drawers and ceiling. Kanazawa Butsudan mainly uses Japanese cypress and gingko for its high durability. Dried completely, wood is cut to predetermined sizes for respective uses and cut out with a saw tailored to proper thickness and shapes. Cut pieces are detailed with a tenon, hole or groove.
  2. 2. Kuden (inner sanctuary) Kuden is a roof above Shumidan where a Buddha statue is enshrined, and made of Korean pine, Japanese cedar and gingko. Elaborate, small parts are all handmade and carefully assembled. Comprised of over 1,000 pieces, a single altar involves arduous assembly requiring artisan’s patience and elaborateness.
  3. 3. Hakubori (wood sculpture and gilding) Hakubori refers to wood decor carving that is decorated with Urushi lacquering and gold leaf. Korean pine is mainly used for decor carving. Dried completely, wood is cut out according to a design or pattern. With a design directly drawn onto the base, starting with roughing out, it goes through semi-fine carving and finish carving with different kinds of chisels and knives. Sculptured pieces undergo Urushi lacquering.
  4. 4. Kijibori (wood sculpture) Kijibori refers to wood decor carving without Urushi lacquering and gold leaf decoration, which is used for upper, middle and lower wooden skirting and maesashi of a shoji paper door. Mainly using hardwood such as boxwood and mulberry tree, it maximizes its natural effects of wood. Once wood dries completely, a design, including a flower, bird and angel, is directly drawn onto it and carved out. Sculptured pieces are assembled after given a final polish with scouring rush.
  5. 5. Ornamental fine metal Various patterns are engraved in copper or brass, sometimes silver for an expensive altar. Traced on the base metal with a needle, exquisite patterns are engraved with a chisel. Engraved fine metal is immersed into nitric acid and rinsed off with water. After dried completely, it is finished in gold-plated.
  6. 6. Urushi lacquering Urushi lacquering is to paint the wooden base, inner sanctuary and carved decors with the sap of the Urushi tree. With a scratch or knot on the wooden base shaved, ground coating called Kokuso Urushi applied to the base and levelled with sandpaper to smooth the surface. Urushi lacquering involves a repeated process of coating the surface with Sabi Urushi made of polishing powder and Shitaji Urushi (ground layer coating), whetting to smooth the surface, painting with Urushi (Nakanuri), drying, whetting to smooth the surface, and painting with Urushi (Uwanuri).
  7. 7. Maki-e Maki-e is a technique of drawing exquisite patterns or designs on the Urushi-painted surface of the front and middle pillars and back of the door panel. Patterns or designs are transferred with Urushi lacquer called Minogami, and applied with Urushi lacquer over to raise Maki-e (Urushiage). They are drawn with color lacquer, and then sprinkled with gold or silver powder. Togidashi Maki-e is used to scrape urushi lacquer off the pattern by applying coats of Urushi lacquer.
  8. 8. Roiro Roiro is a technique of burnishing an Urushi-painted surface or Maki-e and giving the mirror-smooth, glossy finish. The technique includes multiple process steps: smoothening the Roiro urushi-painted surface with Roiro charcoal after dried, rubbing the surface with polishing powder and canola oil to smooth it, and burnish the surface with deer antler powder to add luster.
  9. 9. Hakuoshi Hakuoshi is a gilding technique to layer a gold leaf carefully over the Urushi-painted surface with raw lacquer called ki urushi applied. Layered over the surface, a gold leaf is gently pushed down with floss silk, allowing the edges of ultrathin gold leaf to be aligned together to make it seamless.
  10. 10. Assembly Assembly is a final process of Buddhist altar production. All the parts, such as the wooden base, inner sanctuary, wood sculpture (Hakubori and Kijibori) and ornamental fine metal, are assembled to complete one altar.

Where to Buy & More Information

Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts

Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts Photo:Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League

See more Household Buddhist altars

See items made in Ishikawa