Kyo Buddhist altar Kyo butsudan
Subtle beauty delivered by outstanding craftsmanship
Magnificent designs with gold leaves and lacquer
What is Kyo Buddhist altar ?
Kyo Buddhist Altars (called Kyo Butsudan in Japanese) are produced in the cities of Kyoto and Kameoka in Kyoto. Most Kyo Buddhist Altars are made for temples instead of households. They are professionally handcrafted by a number of respective expert craftsmen. It is said that there are approximately forty craftsmen to build a single altar. The whole production is divided into many processes, and highly skilled specialists for each process build the Buddhist altar. This is why Kyo Butsudan is valued highly not only within Japan but also overseas. This production system where many artisans are engaged enables them to build large Buddhist altars for temples, and is the reason why they have 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 in Japanese) 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 Buddhist 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 to ban the religious beliefs of Christianity, which boosted installation of Buddhist altars in homes. The rise in demand for altars for family use led to production expansion of Kyo Butsudan. One of the reasons why the production process of Kyo Butsudan is divided in many sectors is to fulfill the needs of each Buddhist sect which have different styles of altars. With this production system, they were able to tailor the altars to respective requirements and improve production efficiency. In 1976, Kyo Butsudan was designated as a national traditional craft.
General Production Process
- 1. Wooden base
Kyo Butsudan mainly uses Japanese cypress and pine for its high durability and hardness suitable for carving, as well as its compatibility with lacquer. Dried completely for two to three years, wood is cut out to suit the altar style of each sect. This woodwork step is conducted by the woodturner.
- 2. Building the roof
The second process is building the inside of the roof of an altar by carefully assembling small parts. This process is conducted by the roofer.
- 3. Wood carving
Wood decor carvings are designed based on the designated styles of each sect, such as peonies preferred by the Nishi Hongan-ji Temple sect and heavenly beings in the clouds preferred by the Higashi Hongan-ji Temple sect. This process involves carving the 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.
- 4. Lacquering
Lacquering requires the utmost care in the production process. First a mixture of polishing powder and raw lacquer is applied as a base coating. Polishing powder is used to enhance durability. After the base coating, the first coating of lacquer, intermediate coating and top coating are applied, dried and polished repeatedly. The lacquer should be dried thoroughly each time before applying the next lacquer coating. As lacquer does not dry at room temperature due to its nature, a drying room called urushiburo, where the temperature and humidity are controlled, is used for drying and curing the lacquerware while protecting it from dust.
- 5. Roiro
Roiro is a unique technique of Kyo Butsudan. It involves a repeated process of smoothening and polishing the lacquer painted surface. First it is polished with charcoal (sumitogi) or charcoal powder (dozuri). Next, raw lacquer (suri urushi) is rubbed in, and finally the surface is burnished with deer antler powder (tsunoko migaki). This process gives a distinctively glossy finish unique to Kyo Butsudan.
- 6. Maki-e
Maki-e is a technique of drawing exquisite patterns or designs on the urushi-painted surface with refined urushi lacquer, and sprinkling gold leaf over it. Many maki-e techniques are used such as keshifun maki-e where finely ground gold leaf is used, and togidashi maki-e which is applying lacquer over the sprinkled gold leaf and scraping the lacquer off afterwards. These techniques impart elegant expressions to Kyo Butsudan.
- 7. Coloring
There are three different types of coloring techniques for Kyo Butsudan: the common gokusaishiki, which is applying layers of various colors to the whitewash base, kijisaishiki which is painting the wood directly with light colors to enhance the wood grain effect, and hakusaishiki which is coloring the gold-powdered base with light color pigments. The mixing of colors is important to create harmony with the carved décor.
- 8. Gilding
Gilding is a technique to layer pure gold leaf over the lacquer painted surface. Buddha statues enshrined in an altar have been the color of gold since ancient times. Layering gold leaf one by one by hand over the Buddha statue and inner sanctuary is very delicate work. Gold leaf is gently layered over the surface evenly where lacquer is applied, wiped with cotton, and gently pushed down, bestowing an exquisite, magnificent finish to Kyo Butsudan.
- 9. Ornamental metal fittings
Ornamental metal fittings are metal fittings used to reinforce the altars, hinges of doors, and other decorative parts. Exquisite patterns are engraved in a thin copper or brass sheet using a chisel, which requires concentration and subtle craftsmanship.
Where to Buy & More Information
Kyoto Museum of Crafts and Design
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