Kawanabe Buddhist altar Photo:kawanabe-butudan cooperative

Kawanabe Buddhist altar Kawanabe butsudan

Beautiful tradition veiled in times of religious persecution
Expertise and techniques handed down for generations


What is Kawanabe Buddhist altar ?

Kawanabe Buddhist Altars (called Kawanabe Butsudan in Japanese) are made in the Kawanabe area of Minamikyushu, Kagoshima prefecture. There is a specific type of altar called gamado that is unique to this craft. Gama means cave in the Kagoshima dialect. A gamadan, which combined a pedestal and small statue of Buddha in an altar that can fit in confined, small places like a cave, developed because Buddhist followers secretly chanted and prayed in a hidden cave due to suppression of their Buddhist sect, Jodo Shinshu. Similar to the crypto-Christians camouflaging their religious practices by placing a Virgin Mary statue in a Buddhist altar, hidden Buddhist altars that looked like a chest of drawers from the outside were made in the Kawanabe area. Gamadan and the hidden Buddhist altars are said to have strongly influenced the development of gamado. Altars similar to gamado are produced in this craft, like sanpobiraki, donaga, handai-tsuki, and betsudai-tsuki. Possessing a black-lacquered base decorated with gold leaf, this craft has built a reputation as a beautifully carved small Buddhist altar over the years. The production techniques are not just used for Buddhist altars, but also portable Shinto shrines for events, the interior design of cafes, and the Kyushu bullet train.


There is a historic site called Kiyomizu Magaibutsugun where Buddha images are carved on the five hundred meter cliff by the Kiyomizu River running through the center of the Satsuma penninsula. A number of pagodas for memorial services, Buddha images, and Sanskrit characters have been carved on this cliff from 1264 through the Meiji period (1868-1903), demonstrating the region's long ties to Buddhism. Altar production is believed to have been established in the early 12th century, and the oldest black-lacquered memorial tablet in existence is dated September 6, 1336. The Jodo Shinshu sect was banned by the Satsuma domain (now Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures) in 1597 because the uprising of the Ikko sect (part of the Jodo Shinshu sect) followers in the city of Kaga and the Battle of Ishiyama (decade long campaign by Nobunaga ODA, a feudal military leader and Jodo Shinshu temples) made feudal lords fear the Jodo Shinshu sect. Continued persecution over the next three centuries forced followers to secretly meet in caves and hide Buddha statues and the phrase "Hail Amitabha Buddha", all of which simply strengthened faith among followers. Following the restoration of religious freedom in 1876, the production of Kawanabe Buddhist Altars increased. It gained traditional craft recognition in 1975, which brought nationwide recognition.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base Kawanabe Buddhist Altars mainly use carefully-selected cedar, pine, Japanese cypress, and Japanese bigleaf magnolia for the base. The wood is left to dry for approximately six months, measured and marked using a long measuring stick, and cut out for use. Another two months of drying allows the wood to be cut to predetermined sizes for the base or parts. After drying completely and being adapted to standardized dimensions, the altar body is assembled. This craft is well-designed for easy assembly and disassembly, which makes it easy to repair.
  2. 2. Wood sculpture The wood is cut out according to the required dimensions, and the design is decided for each part. The design is directly drawn onto the base, and different kinds of chisels and knives are used for carving while taking into consideration the parts where they will apply gold leaf in a later process. Detailed, careful carving with high level of accuracy is required to avoid any trouble in the following processes. The carved parts are glued to the base using a bamboo stick.
  3. 3. Inner sanctuary The inner sanctuary of the altar is made by assembling the wooden parts with well-dried bamboo sticks which are insect proof. The inner sanctuary can be disassembled easily by removing the bamboo sticks. At the same time, the main structure of the sanctuary incorporates a unique technique of this craft, which maintains the position of the roof and posts.
  4. 4. Metal fittings Copper or copper alloy is used for metal fittings. They are cut to match the sizes of the wooden base, and the designs are engraved with chisels. The metal fittings as well as the nails to set the fittings are finished with gold-plating and surface treatment.
  5. 5. Maki-e Maki-e is a technique of drawing exquisite patterns or designs on a base with refined lacquer, and then sprinkling gold or silver powder on the designs. Then, the base undergoes further steps of inlaying with natural mother-of-pearl, sprinkling more gold powder, second drawing, re-sprinkling, final drawing, re-sprinkling, and finally finishing with black lacquer and drying. The whole maki-e process requires careful hand drawing and brushing. Traditional maki-e techniques include Hira maki-e (low relief by applying lacquer only over the design and then polishing it) and Taka maki-e (burnished lacquer with raised maki-e).
  6. 6. Base coating The base coating is a mixture of animal glue and whitewash, which is repeatedly applied to the wooden base with a spatula to level the surface for lacquering. This process is complicated and requires much skill and experience.
  7. 7. Final coating After the base coating has dried completely, the final coating is applied. For additional hardening of the base , a middle coating lacquer is applied and polished. The middle coating is applied again and whetted to smooth the surface. Finally, high-quality natural lacquer is applied for the final coating, dried and this process is completed.
  8. 8. Gilding The next process after the final coating is dried is gilding. Gilding is a technique of layering thin gold leaf carefully over a lacquered surface. There are two techniques, burnishing and matting, which is determined by the condition of the lacquer painted surface. This step is a tense process, picking up the gold leaf one by one and gently placing them on the surface to make the edges of the gold leaf aligned while keeping them free of dust.
  9. 9. Assembly The lacquer-painted, gold leaf-decorated parts must be dried completely before being carefully assembled into Kawanabe Buddhist Altars.

See more Household Buddhist altars

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