Nagoya Buddhist altar

Nagoya Buddhist altar Nagoya butsudan

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What is Nagoya Buddhist altar ?

Nagoya Butsudan refers to Buddhist altars which are produced in Nagoya City, Aichi Prefecture. A base of an altar usually uses Japanese cypress, zelkova, sandalwood or equivalent.
It is characterized by a high platform outfitted with Mitsumakuri (three lifting-type doors in the front of the platform) and a luxurious and splendid structure called Kudenobo-tsukuri. A platform of a Buddhist altar was placed high enough to protect from damage by frequent flooding along the Kiso Three Rivers (Kiso River, Nagara River and Ibi River). Featuring an altar fitting storage space inside the platform, Nagoya Butsudan incorporates a tenon assembly structure without using nails, called Kumiki-hozogumi, which allows easy assembly and disassembly, even in refurbishment and cleaning called Osentaku.
Nagoya Butsudan employs an integrated production system by eight professionals (hasshoku) to hand-build a single altar: woodwork (Kijishi), inner sanctuary (Shogunshi), sculpture (Chokokushi), urushi work (Nurishi), Maki-e work (Maki-e shi), exterior metalwork (Soto-kanamonoshi), interior metalwork (Uchi-kanamonoshi) and gilding (Hakuoshishi). With “size", “wooden base", “sect", “building" and “finishing" utilized in combination, these techniques deliver innumerable different styles of altars.


Situated near the Kiso region that is abundant in quality resources, Nagoya used to be a distribution area of wood allowing easy material procurement for Buddhist altar production. A number of artisans with adept craftsmanship for Buddhist altar production such as sculpture and urushi work, who were carpenters specialized in building temples and shrines, settled in Nagoya. In tandem with that, the establishment of the Danka system (parishioner system) is said to have been the backbone of remarkable growth of Nagoya Butsudan.
History of Nagoya Butsudan dates back to 1695, when Jinemon TAKAGI founded a Buddhist altar store called Hiroya. Under the protection of the Owari Domain, kabunakama (merchant guilds) were developed to enable the Buddhist altar artisans to establish and refine their techniques, allowing the areas in and around Sumiyoshi-cho (current 3-chome, Sakae, Naka-ku, Nagoya City) and Shichiken-cho (current 3-chome, Marunouchi and 3-chome Nishiki, Naka-ku, Nagoya City) to become the hub of altar production.
Altar production gained ground as lower-class samurai’s sideline at the end of Edo period, witnessing the growth of the techniques while keeping pace with the changing times. In 1976, Nagoya Butsudan gained a traditional craft recognition by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. Studded with more than 200 Buddhist altar and altar fitting businesses in and around Monzen-cho and Tachibana-cho, Naka-ku, Nagoya has made its mark as the Japan’s most densely populated altar business area.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base Wood must be dried completely after sawn to prevent a deviation even after a long use. Dried wood is cut out to be suitable for respective uses with a long measuring stick, which is called kidori. Cut wooden pieces are temporarily assembled and adjusted while visually checking to build altar interior and exterior parts. The parts are tenoned (hozogumi), which a tenon is inserted into a corresponding mortise hole to joint together with no nails. Key features of Nagoya Butsudan, Mitsumakuri and Nageshi, are also tenoned that are built in this process.
  2. 2. Kuden (inner sanctuary) This process includes building altar decors such as the roof of Kuden (inner sanctuary) and Shumidan where a Buddha statue is enshrined. Elaborate parts are temporarily assembled. The inner sanctuary style is splintered depending on sects and sizes, requiring respective further processes such as urushi work and Maki-e work. A slight deviation could exert an influence on a finish. Kuden Obozukuri style designated by the Jodo Shinshu sect Otani school accounts for over half of Nagoya Butsudan.
  3. 3. Wood sculpture One of the noteworthy features is wood decor carving out of pine mainly but ebony wood and other kinds of wood also. Decor carving is designed tailored to customer’s needs, refined tastes or sect-designated styles, such as golden orca as the symbol of Nagoya and angels preferred by the Shinshu sect Otani school, which offers a wide variety of styles in Nagoya Butsudan.
  4. 4. Urushi lacquering Urushi lacquering starts with ground coating with polishing powder and gofun (whitewash) on the surface of the wooden base after a scratch or crack on the base is mended. A mixture of polishing powder and Urushi lacquer, called kataji, is applied to the surface using a spatula, and is whetted to smooth after it dries. Base coating involves a repeated process of painting the ground-coated surface evenly with Urushi (Shitanuri and Nakanuri), whetting (Nakatogi) and painting with Urushi (Uwanuri) in sequence to facilitate further Urushi lacquering. After base coating dries, the surface is painted with Urushi to apply a resonant finish with different honed techniques including Mokumedashi-nuri, Roiro-nuri and Hakumaki-nuri. Artisans specialized in Roiro-nuri, known as Roiroshi, carry out Roiro urushi painting.
  5. 5. Ornamental fine metal Ornamental fine metal is handcrafted for Buddhist altars. Metal ornaments are classified for the purpose of use, ornaments for inside (uchi-kanagu) or outside (soto-kanagu). Exquisite patterns, such as geometrical patterns, animals and plants, are engraved in a copper or brass sheet using a Tagane chisel and hammer by respective artisans, which defines Nagoya Butsudan.
  6. 6. Maki-e Maki-e is a technique of drawing exquisite patterns or designs on the Urushi-painted surface using refined Urushi lacquer, with gold or silver powder sprinkled. Traditional Maki-e techniques include Hira Maki-e (applying urushi lacquer only over the pattern and burnishing it), Kin Maki-e (sprinkling the pattern with gold powder), Sabi Maki-e (raising the pattern with sabi-urushi lacquer), and Tate Maki-e (applying a three-dimensional appearance to the pattern). Silkscreen printing or Maki-e stickers may be used instead in the current Nagoya Butsudan.
  7. 7. Hakuoshi Hakuoshi is a gilding technique to layer a gold leaf with bamboo chopsticks carefully over the Urushi-painted surface with Hakuoshi Urushi applied. Hakuoshi Urushi works as an adhesive. The color and gloss of a gold leaf depends on the amount of the remaining Hakuoshi Urushi on the surface when it is wiped with cotton. Tsuyakeshi (matting) bestows an exquisite finish to Nagoya Butsudan.
    A gold-leafed object is gently pushed down with a cotton cloth to smooth gold leaf, and excess is wiped off with oil.
  8. 8. Assembly Assembly is a final process of Nagoya Butsudan that is conducted by Shikumishi. Following processes 1 through 7 respectively performed by artisans, all the parts are assembled in sequence to complete one altar, which starts with mounting ornamental fine metal, installing the inner sanctuary and Maki-e decors, and assembling the altar body. An assembled Buddhist altar needs final careful checking after all the parts are polished.

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