Nanao Buddhist altar

Nanao Buddhist altar Nanao butsudan

Gorgeous gold leaf designs
Robust and traditional art


What is Nanao Buddhist altar ?

Nanao Butsudan refers to Buddhist altars which are produced in Nanao City, Ishikawa Prefecture. As part of the Hokuriku region where Jodo Shinshu became widely ingrained long ago, Ishikawa is home to many well-known Buddhist altar production areas such as Kanazawa Butsudan and Mikawa Butsudan.
Nanao Butsudan is characterized by its robustness and splendor. The mountain-ringed Noto area, where Nanao City is located, forced finished Buddhist altars to be carried on the mountain trail. The geographical constraints led to robustness in altars that could withstand harsh-environment transportation. Featuring unique techniques such as Hozogumi (tenon assembly using no nails) and Niju-kagamiita (double-layer back boards behind a principal image and attendant images), Nanao Butsudan boasts a sturdy structure.
Ishikawa has been performing steady growth as the center of exquisite craft production such as urushi lacquer work and gold leaf craftwork since ancient times. Subtle and profound techniques display their characteristics in Nanao Butsudan. Rich with gold leaf and Maki-e designs inlaid with mother-of-pearl, dual gable called Niju Hafu delivers a stately aura. Nanao Butsudan gives luxurious but solemn expressions while Kanazawa Butsudan is shrouded in gracefulness.


History of Nanao Butsudan harks back to the early Muromachi Period, when the Hatakeyama clan as the Shugoshiki (provincial constables) of Noto built handicraft workshops called Saikudokoro to protect urushi lacquer work, Maki-e and wood sculpture industries. It is the time when the technical fundamentals of Nanao Butsudan were developed.
In 1582, Maeda Toshiie attracted more artisans after he moved into the Nanao Castle. There was a street bustling with Nushi (lacquer painters) according to the record with the Kaga clan dating back to 1616, which implies the existence of a town formed with Buddhist altar artisans at that time while considering that Buddhist altar stores are called Nushiya in Nanao.
Abound in Japanese cypress suited for the base of Nanao Butsudan, the Noto area enjoyed a hot-humid climate suited for urushi lacquering. The Noto area respected the tradition of festivals, and building of mikoshi portable shrines and that of Buddhist altars shared the same techniques, which is believed to have nurtured the Buddhist altar industry to have it take root in Nanao. As the hub of the Noto area at the time, Nanao was in demand for altars coupled with the land where the Jodo Shinshu sect was widely worshipped, allowing Nanao to retain a dominant position in altar production to this day. In 1978, Nanao Butsudan gained a national recognition as traditional craft for its long history and prodigious techniques.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wood sculpture This process is carving wooden decorative pieces for the altar. Nanao Butsudan mainly uses Korean pine, ginkgo, Machilus thunbergi, red sandalwood and ebony. Each piece of wood is carefully selected for its quality with no knot and crack and dryness not to warp, and wood is cut out according to the dimensions of a carving part (kidori). With a design directly drawn onto the cut wooden piece, starting with roughing out with chisels and sledges, the wooden piece goes through semi-fine carving and finish carving to apply a final finish to the surface.
  2. 2. Wooden base This process is of building the exterior, pillars, ceiling, shoji paper door and edge of a Buddhist altar. Nanao Butsudan mainly uses Japanese cypress for its quality with little warp and high durability. Wood must be dried completely before careful selection with no cracks, knots or twists. The key feature of Nanao Butsudan is hozogumi (tenon frame) assembly that the wooden parts are tenoned by inserting a tenon into a corresponding mortise hole to joint together with no nails. Tenon assembly adds robustness and durability while enhancing maintainability if disassembled.
  3. 3. Maki-e Maki-e is a technique of drawing exquisite patterns or designs on the Urushi-painted surface using refined Urushi lacquer, with gold powder or mother-of-pearl shells sprinkled. Patterns or designs are drawn with urushi lacquer mixed with tin powder, dried, and then adorned with cut-out shells using glue. The Maki-e techniques includes raising the pattern with sabi (urushi lacquer mixed with polishing powder) and then sprinkling gold powder to deliver an exquisite finish.
  4. 4. Ornamental fine metal This process is of handcrafting metal ornaments and hinges for the front door, shoji paper door and pillars of a Buddhist altars. Exquisite patterns are engraved in a cut-out brass sheet using a Tagane chisel, and any excess is removed. Engraved fine metal is finished gold-plated after the surface is smoothed.
  5. 5. Kinpakuoshi Kinpakuoshi is a gilding technique to layer a gold leaf carefully over the Urushi-painted surface of the inside of the altar, inner sanctuary and wood sculpture. The surface is applied with raw urushi lacquer and wiped with a cotton cloth. A gold leaf is gently layered over the surface with bamboo chopsticks and gently pushed down with floss silk while aligning the edges of ultrathin gold leaf.
  6. 6. Assembly Assembly is a final process of Nanao Butsudan. Following the processes, all the parts are assembled in sequence to complete one altar: Urushi-painted base, inner sanctuary, wood sculpture and ornamental fine metal. An assembled Buddhist altar needs final checking for flaws and dust.

Where to Buy & More Information

Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts

Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts Photo:Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism League

See more Household Buddhist altars

See items made in Ishikawa