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 are Buddhist altars and altar fittings produced in and around Nagaoka City, Niigata Prefecture. Using traditional techniques that were developed in the 17th century, they are also actively producing innovative designs that suit a modern home. With a western furniture style that allows installment in a house with no alter room, the new Nagaoka Butsudan are popular for its handmade warmth and dignified presence. Nagaoka Butsudan is characterized by its inner sanctuary, Mitsuyanegata kuden. A Buddhist altar is made to resemble the main hall of a temple, and is equipped with a stand called shumidan on the center top, and inside the shumidan is the inner sanctuary called kuden where the Buddha statue is enshrined. A roof of the inner sanctuary is tailored to the designated style of each sect. 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, a rising arch shaped roof, with triangular shaped gables called chidori hafu, is set in the middle, and on both sides are kara hafu roofs. 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.


The beginning of Nagaoka Butsudan is said to be in the 17th century, when a number of artisans with adept craftsmanship in sculpture and urushi work, carpenters specialized in building temples and shrines called miyadaiku and artisans specialized in making Buddhist images called busshi, gathered and settled in and around Nagaoka City. The construction of Buddhist temples and shrines can only be done under good weather conditions. As Nagaoka and its neighboring areas have a long winter and heavy snowfall, artisans were unable to work during that time, which is believed to have prodded them to engage in altar production as a side business. In the 19th century, the Nagaoka clan, which ruled over the land of Nagaoka, implemented a policy to protect the Jodo Shinshu sect. As a result, enshrining the family memorial tablet called ihai at every home became a custom, and the demand for Buddhist altars increased. In this way, Nagaoka Butsudan established an impregnable position as a local industry.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base The first process is preparing the wooden base. Nagaoka Butsudan mainly uses carefully-selected zelkova, Japanese cypress, Japanese white pine, Japanese yew, and Japanese big-leaf magnolia for the base of an altar. Artisans’ refined techniques maximize the natural grain effects of wood. The base requires straight and close grained wood that will not develop warps over the years. Selected wood is cut to predetermined sizes while making the most of the wood grain. Dried completely, wood is measured with a long measuring stick marked and labeled with numbers and letters, and is cut out to suitable sizes. The cut wooden pieces are processed using different kinds of chisels and planes, and then the tenons are made in the end of the piece to fit the mortise holes. Nagaoka Butsudan is assembled with these tenons and mortise holes to complete the overall structure. The inner sanctuary is also built at this stage as well as the triple roof, mitsuyane.
  2. 2. Wood sculpture Of many carving techniques, the main technique adopted in Nagaoka Butsudan is maru bori, which is carving a solid block of wood from the front and back to apply a three-dimensional appearance. A board at least 3 cm thick is carved, taking into consideration the perspective of the pattern. Other techniques include hira-bori which is carving to give depth to a thin board and kasane-bori, which is carving multiple layers of thin boards to give a three-dimensional appearance.
  3. 3. Ornamental fine metal Copper, copper alloy or brass sheet are engraved with patterns and colored.
  4. 4. Urushi lacquering The wooden parts assembled in the first process are disassembled, painted with a ground coating of urushi lacquer and dried. The process of painting the surface evenly with urushi, drying and whetting to smooth the surface and apply a glossy finish is repeated several times. This requires arduous work that takes three to six months. Urushi lacquering techniques vary depending on the intended use. Roiro-nuri is coating with black urushi lacquer, mokumedashi-nuri is a coating to enhance the grain effect of wood, safun-nuri is sprinkling sand to give a rough texture to the surface, nashiji-nuri is finishing the urushi-lacquered surface with gold, silver or tin powder, and aogai-nuri is inlaying crushed mother-of-pearl and abalone shells. The combination of the deep luster of urushi and various lacquering techniques creates an exquisite, luxurious atmosphere.
  5. 5. Maki-e Maki-e is a technique of hand-drawing exquisite patterns or designs such as flowers, birds or people, 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, which is painting urushi lacquer repeatedly to raise the pattern and apply a three-dimensional appearance.
  6. 6. Gilding Layers of gold leaf are carefully applied over the urushi-painted surface. There are mainly two gilding techniques: burnishing and matting. Additional to this, there is also a technique to sprinkle gold powder over the maki-e. Combining these techniques gives the Nagaoka Butsudan a luxurious and gorgeous finish.

Where to Buy & More Information

Ojiya Dento Sangyo Kaikan Sunplaza

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