Kyo Buddhist altar

Kyo Buddhist altar Kyo butsudan

Subtle beauty delivered by outstanding craftsmanship
Magnificent designs with gold leaves and lacquer


What is Kyo Buddhist altar ?

Kyo Butsudan refers to Buddhist altars which are produced in Kyoto City and Kameoka City, Kyoto. Most of the Kyo Butsudan altars are intended for temples, instead of households, because they are professionally handcrafted by a number of respective expert craftsmen.
Kyo Butsudan is characterized by premium quality, prodigious techniques respective artisans boast, and employs an integrated production system by professionals in about 40 different fields to hand-build a single altar. Kyo Butsudan is valued highly as the fruits of advanced artisan technologies at home and abroad. This production system in which many artisans are engaged leads to the foundation of a Buddhist altar with a larger body designed for temples besides for households, enabling Kyo Butsudan to assume a dominant position in temples across the country.


Studded with a number of historical temples, Kyoto has always prospered as the heart of Buddhism.
Buddhist altar fittings (called Butsugu) found their way into Kyoto concurrently with the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century, and the production of Kyo Butsugu is presumed to have begun in the 8th century between the Nara Period and the Heian Period. History of Kyo Butsudan harks back to the 11th century, when Kyo Butsugu altar fittings went into full-fledged production by sculptors of Buddhist altar fittings in Shichijo.
The Tokugawa Shogunate in the Edo Era established the religious sect investigation called Shumon Aratame to ban the religious beliefs of Christianity, which forced the public to have a Buddhist altar installed in a house. A rise in demand for altars for family use led to production expansion of Kyo Butsudan. Each sect employs a different style of Buddhist altar, spurring the development of an integrated production system that was carried out by artisans in different fields to be tailored to respective sect requirements and improve production efficiency.
In 1976, Kyo Butsudan was designated as a national traditional craft in recognition of its traditional values.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base Kyo Butsudan mainly uses Japanese cypress and pine for its high durability and excellent urushi lacquering. Dried completely over 2 or 3 years, wood is cut out to be suitable for a base of an altar to conform to the style of each sect. The woodwork step is conducted by Kijishi (woodturner).
  2. 2. Roofing work Roofing work includes building the inside of the roof of an altar through careful assembly of small parts. The roofing work step is conducted by Yaneshi (roofer).
  3. 3. Wood sculpture Wood decor carving is designed tailored to sect-designated styles, such as peonies preferred by the Nishi Hongan-ji Temple sect and angels in the clouds by the Higashi Hongan-ji Temple sect. This process involves carving Kuden (inner sanctuary), Shumidan (where a Buddha statue is enshrined) and table with elaborate designs using different kinds of chisels and knives. Wood decor carving requires subtle craftsmanship to provide artisan-handcrafted decors with uplifting feelings and vital energy. This process is completed by Chokokushi (sculptor).
  4. 4. Urushi lacquering Urushi lacquering requires the utmost care in the production process of meticulous care. It starts with ground coating with polishing powder and raw lacquer (kiurushi) to reinforce durability. Urushi lacquering is a repeated process of painting the ground-coated surface evenly with Urushi (Shitanuri, Nakanuri and Uwanuri) and whetting in sequence to smooth the surface and apply a finish. Urushi recoating applies after the base must be dried completely. Urushi lacquer does not dry at room temperature due to its nature, urging the use of Urushiburo that is a temperature- and humidity-controlled room used for drying and curing urushiware while protecting it from dust.
  5. 5. Roiro Roiro is a unique technique of Kyo Butsudan. It involves a repeated process of smoothening the urushi-painted surface with charcoal (Sumitogi) or carbon powder (Douzuri), rubbing the surface with raw urushi lacquer (Suri Urushi), and burnishing the surface with deer antler powder (Tsunoko Migaki), giving a distinctively glossy finish and defining Kyo Butsudan.
  6. 6. 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. With Keshifun Maki-e (decorating with finely ground gold leaf), profound Togidashi Maki-e (scraping urushi lacquer off the pattern by applying coats of urushi over sprinkled gold leaf) and other Maki-e techniques impart elegant expressions to Kyo Butsudan.
  7. 7. Coloring Kyo Butsudan employs Saishiki coloring technique that is subdivided: Gokusaishiki (applying many layers of color to the whitewash base, Kijisaishiki (enhancing the grain effect while using tint color pigments) and Hakusaishiki (coloring the gold-powdered base with tint color pigments). This process emphasizes the mixing of paints to create harmony with the carved décor.
  8. 8. Junkin Hakuoshi Junkin Hakuoshi is a gilding technique to layer (put) a gold leaf over the urushi-painted surface. Buddha statues to be enshrined in an altar have been supposed to be painted gold since ancient times. This is very delicate handicraft work of layering a gold leaf one by one over a complicated shaped sculpture such as a Buddha statue and inner sanctuary. A gold leaf is gently layered over the surface with Hakuoshi urushi applied, wiped with cotton, and gently pushed down, bestowing an exquisite, magnificent finish to Kyo Butsudan.
  9. 9. Kazari ornamental metal Ornamental fine metal, known as Kazari, has been used to reinforce Buddhist altars, hinge the door, and decorate parts. Exquisite patterns are engraved in a thin copper or brass sheet using a Tagane chisel, which requires concentration and subtle craftsmanship.

Where to Buy & More Information

Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts

Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts

See more Household Buddhist altars

See items made in Kyoto