Nagaoka Buddhist altar Photo:Takuminote - MASTER'S ARTISTRY – production team

Nagaoka Buddhist altar Nagaoka butsudan

Splendid gold lacquer and gold leaf designs
Prestigious and magnificent atmosphere


What is Nagaoka Buddhist altar ?

Nagaoka Butsudan refers to Buddhist altars and altar fittings which are produced in and around Nagaoka City, Niigata Prefecture. It has also risen to prominence as innovative-designed altars that suit a modern house, even using the traditional techniques that were developed in the 17th century. With a western furniture style that allows installment in a house with no alter room, the new Nagaoka Butsudan basks in popularity for its handmade feeling and dignified presence.
Nagaoka Butsudan is characterized by Mitsuyanegata kuden in analogy to the main hall of a temple. Equipped with a stand called Shumidan on the center top of the inside, a Buddhist altar has a Kuden (inner sanctuary), a space above Shumidan where a Buddha statue is enshrined. A roof of the inner sanctuary is tailored to sect-designated style. Featuring the eclectic mix of the double roof structure for the Higashi Hongan-ji Temple and the single roof structure for the Nishi Hongan-ji Temple, Nagaoka Butsudan boasts a gorgeous triple roof. Kara Hafu which is a rising arch shaped roof is attached to both sides of the double roof adopting Chidori Hafu (triangular shaped gable).
Nagaoka Butsudan is well-designed to separate the pedestal from the main altar body, allowing easy assembly and disassembly in refurbishment to maintain it in good shape even years later. This is a Buddhist altar that will be handed down through many generations by virtue of the unique structure.


History of Nagaoka Butsudan is presumed to have harked back to the 17th century, when a number of artisans with adept craftsmanship in sculpture and urushi work and carpenters specialized in building temples and shrines (miyadaiku) and making Buddhist images (busshi), gathered and settled in and around Nagaoka City, leading to Buddhist altar production. The construction of Buddhist temples and shrines is susceptible to a weather condition and takes place only in mild climates. Visited by the long winter and heavy snowfall, Nagaoka and its neighboring areas forced artisans to be out of job during that time, which is believed to have prodded them to engage in altar production on the side.
In the 19th century, the Nagaoka clan, which controlled over the land of Nagaoka, implemented a policy to protect the Jodo Shinshu sect, resulting in a custom that commoners enshrined ihai (ancestral tablet). The altars reached rapid, widespread adoption amid growing demand for household Buddhist altars to place the tablets in, allowing the production of Nagaoka Butsudan to assume an impregnable position as a local industry.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base The first process is woodwork called kiji, which is building a wooden base. Nagaoka Butsudan mainly uses carefully-selected zelkova, Japanese cypress, Japanese white pine, Japanese yew, and Japanese big-leaf magnolia for a base of an altar. Artisans’ refined techniques maximize the natural grain effects of wood. The base requires straight- and close-grained wood that will develop no warps even though use over the years. Selected wood is cut to predetermined sizes while allowing the wood grain to be visible.
    Dried completely, wood is measured with a long measuring stick called Shakujo and cut out to be suitable for respective uses. Shakujo is a type of ruler marked and labeled with numbers and letters. Cut wooden pieces are processed using dozens of different kinds of chisels and planes, and then the tenon (hozo) is cut in the end of the piece to fit the mortise hole. Nagaoka Butsudan employs Hozogumi (tenon frame) assembly to complete the overall structure.
    As with kiji woodwork, Kuden (inner sanctuary) is built featuring a triple roof (Mitsuyane).
  2. 2. Wood sculpture Of many carving techniques, the main technique adopted in Nagaoka Butsudan is Maru-bori which is openwork carving from a solid block of wood, from the front and back, to apply a three-dimensional appearance). Maru-bori is carving a board at least 3 cm thick allowing for a pattern in perspective. The other techniques include Hira-bori (carving to give depth to a thin board) and Kasane-bori (carving multiple layers of thin boards to give a three-dimensional appearance).
  3. 3. Ornamental fine metal Engraved in a copper, copper alloy or brass sheet with patterns, ornamental fine metal is finished painted.
  4. 4. Urushi lacquering Urushi lacquering starts with ground coating on the pieces of the disassembled wooden base with Urushi lacquer. It involves a repeated process of painting the surface evenly with Urushi, drying and whetting to smooth the surface and apply a glossy finish, requiring arduous work that takes at least three months and up to six months.
    Urushi lacquering techniques vary depending on the intended use among Roiro-nuri (coating with non-oily black urushi lacquer), Mokumedashi-nuri (coating to enhance the grain effect of wood), Safun-nuri (sprinkling sand to give a rough texture to the surface), Nashiji-nuri (finishing the urushi-lacquered surface in aventurine composed of gold, silver or tin powder), and Aogai-nuri (inlaying crushed mother-of-pearl and abalone shells). Harmony with various lacquering types, urushi lacquer delivers profound luster and an exquisite, luxurious atmosphere.
  5. 5. Maki-e Maki-e is a technique of hand-drawing exquisite patterns or designs such as a flower, bird or person using refined Urushi lacquer. Traditional Maki-e techniques include Hira Maki-e (a basic technique of drawing a pattern lightly with Urushi lacquer and sprinkling gold powder over it) and Urushimori Maki-e (painting Urushi lacquer repeatedly to raise the pattern and apply a three-dimensional appearance).
  6. 6. Kinpakuoshi Kinpakuoshi is a gilding technique to layer a gold leaf carefully over the Urushi-painted surface. There are two gilding techniques: Tsuyadashi (burnishing) and Tsuyakeshi (matting). Combined with Kinpunmaki which is sprinkling the Maki-e-applied surface with gold powder, it bestows a sheen and resonance on Nagaoka Butsudan.

Where to Buy & More Information

Ojiya Dento Sangyo Kaikan Sunplaza

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