Mikawa Buddhist altar Mikawa butsudan
Developed under a powerful shogun
Top-quality and local materials
What is Mikawa Buddhist altar ?
Mikawa Buddhist Altars, called Mikawa Butsudan in Japanese, are made in the Mikawa area of Okazaki, Aichi prefecture. In the region, as it was a custom to place a Buddhist altar in the closet, there were demands to make the pedestal of the altar lower for easier everyday use. The pedestal was tailored to the dimensions of the closet and were made with three drawers. Mikawa Butsudan is characterized by its size to fit in a closet as well as its luxurious appearance which can especially be seen in its unique Uneri Nageshi style applied to transoms or the roof that allows the beautiful inner sanctuary and Buddha statue to be clearly visible. Mikawa Butsudan was designated as a traditional craft by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, together with the Toyohashi Brushes and Tokoname yaki (ceramics) of the same region.
The Buddhist sect Jodo Shinshu was first introduced to the Mikawa area in the Kamakura Period, and took root among local commoners during the Muromachi Period, contributing to Buddhist altar production. Patronized by the shogunate government, current Okazaki City, known as the birthplace of Ieyasu TOKUGAWA, steadily grew as the center of altar production with the development of Buddhism. The 117 kilometer long Yahagi River is one of Japan’s first-class rivers that flows through Okazaki City from Nagano Prefecture through Gifu Prefecture, entering Aichi Prefecture all the way to Chita Bay. After Ieyasu TOKUGAWA worked on flood control of the Yahagi River, where there were many tributaries, Yahagi River became the hub of water transport. With pine, Japanese cedar and Japanese cypress drifting from the upstream, high-quality Urushi lacquer being available in the northern Mikawa area, and advanced casting and forging techniques being introduced to the Mikawa area, Okazaki City became a favorable place for altar production where the Shohachi family started producing Mikawa Butsudan in 1704.
General Production Process
- 1. Wooden base
Mikawa Butsudan undergoes eight process steps. Each step is professionally conducted by expert craftsmen. The first step is woodwork, which is conducted by the kijishi (woodturner). This process includes a tenon assembly of approximately thirty parts of cutout wood to make the frame of the altar. Hagizuke is a technique unique to Mikawa Butsudan where glue-coated tenon boards are parched over a charcoal fire after assembling to strengthen the adhesion.
- 2. Kuden (inner sanctuary)
Kuden is the inner wooden sanctuary comprised of the roof, pillars and shumidan where the Buddha statue is enshrined, and this process is carried out by the kudenshi (artisan for assembling wooden parts). Inner sanctuary styles vary with sects, such as shogon-zukuri, goboyo, zenshumasu-zukuri and dozukuri. As the pedestal is low, the inner sanctuary is made to be luxurious at this stage.
- 3. Wood sculpture
Flowers, birds, arabesques or dragons are carved on the wooden wavy nageshi, which is the beam running between the columns at the top, and inside the sanctuary according to the designated style of each sect. The design is traced onto the wooden base (Japanese cypress or pine) and is roughly carved, semi-fine carved and finally goes through finish carving. Mikawa Butsudan also has a unique carving technique called hanakobori which is carving a floral design in the center of the shoji-paper sliding door. This process is completed by the chokokushi (sculptor).
- 4. Urushi lacquering
The nushi (lacquer painter) paints the wooden base with urushi lacquer. Ground coating with polishing powder on the surface of the base, sanctuary and carved designs, and drying is always necessary before lacquering. After being dried, the coated wooden base is polished with a wetted whetstone to smooth the surface. When the surface is smoothed, lacquer is painted on the surface evenly with a brush, dried and then whetted with Suruga charcoal. The types of lacquer used (hakuoshi-urushi, roiro-urushi and nuritate-urushi) vary depending on the the parts of the altar.
- 5. Ornamental fine metal
Ornamental fine metal for the Buddhist altars are handcrafted by the kanamonoshi (metalworker). Metal ornaments are classified into two types; ornaments used on the inside called uchi-kanagu and those on the outside, soto-kanagu. Various patterns are engraved using a chisel and hammer by the respective artisans. An embossing carving method is used to create a three-dimensional effect on the metal ornament with hairline engraving in the door stop. This is one of the characteristics of Mikawa Butsudan.
- 6. Maki-e
Maki-e is a technique of drawing exquisite patterns or designs on the urushi-painted surface with gold powder. The base is painted with refined urushi lacquer and sprinkled with gold and silver powder, and abalone shells according to the pattern or design before it dries. Traditional maki-e techniques include doromori maki-e, hira maki-e and hakushita maki-e. Among the three, doromori maki-e is a technique to raise the maki-e with clay to create a three dimensional appearance, and skilled craftsmanship is especially required.
- 7. Gilding
Hakuoshi is a gilding technique to place the gold leaf on the urushi painted surface. A different lacquer called oshi urushi is applied evenly, and the gold leaf is carefully placed one by one. This very delicate work is finished with wiping the gold-leafed part with a soft cotton cloth to remove excess gold leaf.
- 8. Assembly
Assembly is the final process of Mikawa Butsudan which is conducted by the kumitateshi. All the parts are assembled in the order of ornamental fine metal, inner sanctuary, sculptures, roof, frame and the inside. The assembled Buddhist altar goes through final checking for flaws and another polishing before completion.
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