Kyo Buddhist altar equipment

Kyo Buddhist altar equipment Kyo butsugu

Techniques from Kyoto, the home of Buddhism
Quality of the tradition through different ages


What is Kyo Buddhist altar equipment ?

Kyo Butsugu refers to a Buddhist altar and altar fitting which are made in Kyoto. Studded with temples of various sects, Kyoto has always prospered as the center of Buddhism, inevitably leading to increasing demand for altar fittings for memorial services. Kyo Butsugu has been assuming a dominant position at 80% in temples across the country.
Kyo Butsugu is characterized by long-established quality and techniques. Buddhist altar fittings are ill-suited to mass production because each sect employs a different style, which prods Kyo Butsugu to be tailored to respective requirements by combining expertise in woodwork, sculpture, metalwork and urushi work. With prodigious techniques, Kyo Butsugu is of the highest quality in various periods in history and has proven its outstanding quality in a number of national treasures and cultural properties. Kyo Butsugu has always required many steps of a process to be professionally handcrafted and been an integration of traditional techniques and experiences among professional craftsmen.


History of Kyo Butsugu is presumed to have harked back to the 8th century when the capital was transferred to Heiankyo in 794, while that of Buddhist altar fittings is believed to have started along with the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century. Kyoto, as the heart of Buddhism, is the home of grand head temples of all sects, spurring the development of techniques for sect-designated styles and tradition. Jocho Busshi, a Japanese sculptor in the middle of the Heian period, founded Shichijo Bussho (a Buddhist sculpture workshop) at Shichijo in Kyoto, where Bukko (sculptors of Buddhist statues and altar fittings) such as Jocho, his family and followers devoted themselves to Buddhist sculpture. In the early 11th century, Kyo Butsugu went into full-scale production, particularly for the samurai class. The Tokugawa Shogunate in the Edo Era established terauke seido to ban the religious beliefs of Christianity, which forced the public to have the temples confirm that they were not Christians and to become danka (supporters of the temple). This is the start when a Buddhist altar was installed in a house, and since then the production of Kyo Butsugu altars for family use has begun in full swing.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base Kyo Butsugu mainly uses Japanese cypress, pine and zelkova. After careful selection with no cracks, knots or twists, wood must be dried completely. With dried wood, the body of a Buddhist altar or altar fitting is made to conform to the style of each sect or temple, allowing for Urushi coat thickness which is applied in a later process.
  2. 2. Wood sculpture A flower, bird, animal or person is carved in the wooden base according to a sect-designated style. Decorations on a Buddhist altar and altar fitting must create a wealth of expressions such as life force and repose, which requires refined tastes and advanced techniques. Dozens of different kinds of chisels and knives are used for decor carving.
  3. 3. Buddhist sculpture There are two Buddhist carving techniques: Ichiboku-zukuri and Yosegi-zukuri. Ichiboku-zukuri refers to a technique of carving a Buddha statue from a solid block of wood, and Yosegi-zukuri refers to a technique of carving a statue in a piecemeal fashion from partially hollow blocks of wood and assembling the pieces. The Yosegi-zukuri technique allows making of a large statue.
  4. 4. Urushi lacquering Urushi lacquering is to paint the wooden base with the sap of the Urushi tree. With the surface of the base smoothed, it involves a repeated process of painting the surface evenly with Urushi, drying and levelling to smooth the surface and give the final touch with painting. Urushi lacquering process requires time and effort, but careful coating on the base holds the key to exquisite finish. Hardness and dryness of Urushi is adjusted by virtue of the artist’s years of experience.
  5. 5. Roiro Roiro technique is used to erase brush lines and put the mirror-smooth, glossy finish, maximizing the unique characteristics of Urushi. The technique includes multiple process steps: Sumitogi (smoothening the surface with Suruga or Roiro charcoal), Dozuri (applying delicate polishing), Suri Urushi (rubbing Roiro-urushi on the surface) and Migaki (polishing with polishing powder and oil).
  6. 6. Makie Makie is the height of Japanese Urushi work, drawing exquisite patterns or designs with gold and silver powder and shells sprinkled on the Roiro-processed surface. Patterns or designs appear as the Urushi-painted surface is polished after it is dried, while another method requires no polishing. The finished quality varies with the roughness and thickness of powder in the patterns or designs. Makie realizes more multifaceted techniques, delivering a variety of designs.
  7. 7. Saishiki Saishiki is a coloring technique to add colors to a gold leaf or Urushi base with gold powder and pigments including mineral pigments and mud pigments. The technique is subdivided: Gokusaishiki (applying many layers of color to the whitewash base, Kijisaishiki (capitalizing on characteristics of wood while using tint color pigments) and Hakusaishiki (coloring the gold-powdered base with tint color pigments). The craftsman’s uniqueness is brought out in color coordination and composition.
  8. 8. Junkin Hakuoshi Junkin Hakuoshi is a gilding technique to layer (put) a gold leaf over the Urushi-painted Buddhist altar fitting before Urushi dries. Hammered into thin sheets in 1/ to 2/10,000-mm thick, a gold leaf is used for decoration. Proficient skills make it possible to decorate a complicated shaped sculpture and align the edges of gold leaf. Wiping a gold-leafed object with a cloth is very delicate work because the dryness of Urushi is affected by the weather, requiring subtle craftsmanship.
  9. 9. Kazari ornamental metal Ornamental fine metal, known as Kazari, has been used to decorate Buddhist altar fittings. Engraved in copper or brass with patterns, ornamental fine metal is finished gold-plated. Creating a solemn atmosphere, Kazari ornamental metal should be in harmony with altar fittings.
  10. 10. Metal Finished parts are assembled to complete Kyo Butsugu.

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