Nagoya Buddhist altar

Nagoya Buddhist altar Nagoya butsudan

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What is Nagoya Buddhist altar ?

Nagoya Buddhist Altars (called Nagoya Butsudan in Japanese) are produced around the city of Nagoya, Aichi prefecture. Usually high grade trees such as Japanese cypress, zelkova, or sandalwood are used for the base. Nagoya Buddhist Altars have a high platform outfitted with mitsumakuri or three lifting doors in the front of the platform, as well as a magnificent and luxurious framework called kuden obotsukuri. Originally, the altar platforms were made high to protect the altars from being damaged by the frequent flooding of the nearby rivers. There is a storage space for altar fittings in the platform, and as the altars are built using a wood joinery technique which doesn't use nails, it is easy to assemble and disassemble. They can be cleaned or repaired easily. Nagoya Buddhist Altars have an integrated production system of eight professionals to handcraft a single altar. Each of them are professionals of woodwork, the inner sanctuary, sculpture, lacquerwork, maki-e work, exterior metalwork, interior metalwork, and gilding. As the altars are a combination of professional work based on the size, wooden base, sect, building and finishing, there are countless, various types of altar styles.


As a city near the resource rich region of Kiso, Nagoya used to be a wood distribution area, which made the process of getting materials for Buddhist altar production simple. Many artisans that had adept craftsmanship for Buddhist altar related production like sculpture and lacquerwork as they specialized in building temples and shrines, settled in Nagoya. In addition, the establishment of the danka parishioner system, which required the affiliation between households and Buddhist temples, is said to have led to the remarkable growth of this craft. The history of Nagoya Buddhist Altars dates back to 1695, when Jinemon TAKAGI founded a Buddhist altar shop called Hiroya. Under the financial protection of the Owari domain (presently Aichi prefecture), merchant guilds were developed to enable the Buddhist altar artisans to establish and refine their techniques, leading the areas in and around current Naka-ku, Nagoya to become the hub of altar production.
Altar production gained ground as lower-class samurai’s extra source of income by the end of the Edo period (1603-1868), with the continued development of new techniques that kept pace with the changing times. In 1976, Nagoya Buddhist Altars were recognized as a traditional craft by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. Now having more than two hundred Buddhist altar and altar fitting businesses, Naka-ku, Nagoya is Japan’s most densely populated Buddhist altar business area.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base The wood material must be dried completely after being timbered to prevent any gaps from developing over time. Dried wood is cut out to the required sizes for each part of the altar by using a long measuring stick. The pieces are temporarily assembled and adjusted and then joined using a technique called hozogumi, where a tenon is inserted into a corresponding mortise hole to join together with no nails. The parts unique to Nagoya Buddhist altars, mitsumakuri (three lifting doors that come in the front of the altar) and nageshi are also made using this technique at this stage.
  2. 2. Inner sanctuary This process includes building altar decors such as the roof of the inner sanctuary and shumidan, where the Buddha statue is enshrined. The elaborate parts are temporarily assembled. The inner sanctuary style and methods, as well as the further steps such as lacquerware and maki-e, differ depending on sects and sizes. A slight deviation during this process could affect the final appearance of the altar. In Nagoya, more than half of the altars produced are kuden obozukuri style, designated by the Otani school of the Jodo Shinshu sect.
  3. 3. Wood sculpture Nagoya Buddhist Altars have wood decor carved mostly out of pine, but other kinds of wood such as ebony are also used. The decor carving is designed tailored to the customer’s needs, tastes, or sect-designated styles, such as golden orca as the symbol of Nagoya and heavenly maidens which are preferred by the Otani school Shinshu sect.
  4. 4. Lacquering Lacquering starts with a base coating of polishing powder and whitewash on the surface of the wooden base after mending any scratches or cracks on the wood. Next, a mixture of polishing powder and lacquer is applied to the surface using a spatula and the surface is whetted to smooth after it dries. This process is repeated to prepare the base and make further lacquering easier. After the base coating dries, the surface is painted with lacquer. There are different lacquering techniques used for certain parts including mokumedashi-nuri, roiro-nuri, and hakumaki-nuri. There is a special artisan for the roiro-nuri.
  5. 5. Ornamental fine metal Ornamental fine metal is handcrafted for Buddhist altars. There are ornaments for the inside and outside of the altar, and there are specialized artisans in charge of each. Exquisite patterns, such as geometrical patterns, animals and plants, are engraved in a copper or brass sheet using a chisel and hammer.
  6. 6. Maki-e Maki-e is a technique of drawing patterns or designs on a lacquer painted surface with refined lacquer, and sprinkling gold or silver powder on the design. Traditional techniques include hira maki-e, applying lacquer only over the pattern and burnishing it, kin maki-e, sprinkling the pattern with gold powder, and sabi maki-e, raising the pattern with sabi lacquer, and applying a three-dimensional appearance to the pattern. Today, silk-screen printings or stickers are also used for maki-e.
  7. 7. Gilding Hakuoshi is a gilding technique where the surface is evenly lacquered with hakuoshi lacquer, then wiped off with a cotton cloth and gold leaf is layered carefully on the surface with bamboo chopsticks. The color and gloss of gold leaf depends on the amount of remaining hakuoshi lacquer on the surface. Nagoya Buddhist Altars use the tsuyakeshi oki method, which provides a matte finish. Once the gold leaf is placed, it is gently pushed down and smoothed with a cotton cloth, and any excess gold leaf is wiped off with oil.
  8. 8. Assembly Assembly is the final process of Nagoya Buddhist Altars. After the first seven steps are done by specialized artisans, all the pieces are assembled in sequence to complete an altar. First the ornamental fine metal is mounted, the inner sanctuary is installed, maki-e decor is applied, and the altar body is assembled. The assembled Buddhist altar is carefully checked after all the parts are polished.

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