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 Butsudan refers to Buddhist altars which are made in Kawanabe of Minami Kyushu City, Kagoshima Prefecture. It is characterized by its original techniques, which is called Gamado. Gama refers to a mountain cave in the Kagoshima dialect, and a cave called Kakuregama was where groups of followers secretly would meet and perform chanting because of the suppression on Jodo Shinshu (Ikko Sect). Being a pedestal and Buddha statue combined in one unit, Gamadan, a Buddhist altar is installed for worship service in a confined, small place like a cave.
It is known that crypto-Christians camouflaged their religious practices with the Virgin Mary statue in the altar, and in the Kawanabe area, gorgeous decorative golden Kakushi Butsudan (hidden Buddhist altar) was housed behind the doors that looked like the chest of drawers. The characteristics of Gamadan and Kakushi Butsudan are said to have been strongly left within Gamado.
Kawanabe Butsudan appears in different styles: Sanpobiraki, Donaga, Handaitsuki, and Betsudaitsuki besides Gamado. Endowed with a black-lacquered base decorated with gold leaf, Kawanabe Butsudan has been laying the foundation as a beautifully carved small Buddhist altar over the years. This technique has been employed beyond religion, such as in Mikoshi (portable shrine) for events, and the interior designs of cafes and Kyushu Shinkansen bullet train Tsubame.


Historic site “Kiyomizu Magai Butsugun (Kiyomizu Stone Buddhas)" provides the panoramic view extending 500m on the cliff by the Shimizu River, a headstream of the Manose River running through the center of Satsuma Peninsula. A number of pagodas for memorial services, Buddha statues, and Sanskrit characters had been carved in the lofty cliff from 1264 through the Meiji Era, which proves the Kawanabe area has a long history and strong tie with Buddhism. Buddhist altar production is believed to have been established in the early 12th century, and the oldest black-lacquered memorial tablet in existence was dated September 6, 1336.
The Jodo Shinshu sect was banned by the Satsuma domain in 1597 because the uprising of Ikko sect followers in Kaga and the Battle of Ishiyama between the Jodo Shinshu Hongan-ji school and Oda Nobunaga made feudal lords afraid of the sect. Persecution over three centuries compelled followers to set a secret meeting place in a cave known as Kakure Nenbutsu-do and to hide the Buddha statue and the six-kanji name of ‘Hail to Amitabha Buddha’ by any means, resulting in stronger faith grown in followers. Following the rescission of the ban that promulgated the freedom of religion in 1876, Kawanabe Buddhist altar industry became popular, and Kawanabe Butsudan gained a traditional craft recognition in 1975, when the technique came to be known nationwide.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base Kawanabe Butsudan mainly uses carefully-selected cedar, pine, Japanese cypress and Japanese big-leaf magnolia for a base of an altar. Dried completely over half year, wood is cut with a long measuring stick marked every 30cm and cut out to be suitable for respective uses. Another two months of drying allows wood to be cut to predetermined sizes for a base or parts. After being finished and checked to be adapted to standardized dimensions, the body of a Buddhist altar is assembled. Kawanabe Butsudan is well-designed to enable easy assembly and disassembly, even in refurbishment.
  2. 2. Wood sculpture Wood is cut out according to the dimensions of a carving part, and a design or pattern is decided. With a design directly drawn onto the base, different kinds of chisels and knives are used for decor carving, allowing for gold leaf which is applied in a later process. Detailed, careful carving with high dimensional accuracy facilitates the next process. Rootstock is glued using a bamboo stick.
  3. 3. Kuden (inner sanctuary) Kuden with its bracket assemblies uses bamboo sticks which are well-dried for insect proofing, and can be disassembled easily with disassembly of bamboo sticks. The main structure of the sanctuary incorporates a unique technique of Kawanabe Butsudan that holds a roof and posts accurately.
  4. 4. Ornamental fine metal Engraved in a copper or copper alloy sheet with patterns using a chisel according to the size of the base, ornamental fine metal is finished fine gold-plated. Fasteners including nails are also coated with gold plating.
  5. 5. Maki-e Maki-e is a technique of drawing exquisite patterns or designs on the Urushi-painted surface using refined Urushi lacquer, with gold powder sprinkled. Then, the base undergoes further process steps: Hiragaki (first drawing) which having it inlaid with natural mother-of-pearl, re-sprinkling of gold powder, Hiragaki (second drawing), re-sprinkling, finishing, re-sprinkling, finishing in black lacquer and drying. The whole Maki-e process requires careful manual drawing and brushing. Traditional Maki-e techniques include Hira Maki-e (in low relief by applying Urushi lacquer only over the design and then polishing it) and Taka Maki-e (burnished Urushi raised Maki-e).
  6. 6. Urushi lacquering (ground coating) With a mixture of glue and whitewash, base coating is repeatedly applied to the wooden base using a spatula by levelling to smooth the surface for Urushi lacquering. Base coating requires subtle craftsmanship.
  7. 7. Urushi lacquering (final coating) Final coating (Uwanuri) applies after the ground-coated base must be dried completely. It is a repeated process of painting the ground-coated surface evenly with Urushi (Nakanuri) to give firmness, polishing, repainting with Urushi and whetting to smooth the surface. Final coating with high-quality Urushi (Uwanuri) and drying delivers a glossy finish.
  8. 8. Kinpakuoshi Kinpakuoshi is a gilding technique to layer fine gold leaf carefully over the well-dried, Urushi-painted surface with Hakuoshi Urushi applied. There are two techniques, which are determined depending on the condition of an Urushi-painted surface: Tsuyadashi (burnishing) and Tsuyakeshi (matting). Kinpakuoshi is a tense process, requiring proficient skills that are capable of aligning the edges of ultrathin gold leaf gently by picking it up one by one with chopsticks while making sure to keep it free of dust.
  9. 9. Assembly and finish The Urushi-painted, gold leaf-decorated parts must be dried completely and assembled carefully to build Kawanabe Butsudan.

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