Niigata-shirone Buddhist altar Photo:Niigata Prefecture

Niigata-shirone Buddhist altar Niigata shirone butsudan

Luxurious and elaborate gold leaves designs
Elegant, exquisite, sophisticated finish


What is Niigata-shirone Buddhist altar ?

Niigata Shirone Butsudan are Buddhist altars which are mainly made in Niigata city, Niigata prefecture. Japanese cypress, zelkova, Japanese cherry, Japanese white pine and pine are usually used for the altar base. Niigata Shirone Butsudan is characterized by its original techniques combined with traditional techniques and fabrication methods of Kyo Butsudan and elegant finish with Maki-e painting. The inner sanctuary is built using a unique technique called hiramasugumi, which allows easy assembly and disassembly, even when repairing. This technique enables easy repair of detailed parts, maintaining good condition after centuries. Niigata Shirone Butsudan undergoes five production processes, which are professionally handcrafted by respective expert craftsmen in woodwork, sculpture, metalwork, urushi lacquering work and Maki-e work. The gorgeous rich effects of real gold leaf, gold painting and Maki-e decorating on the Urushi lacquered surface give an exquisite and graceful beauty to Niigata Shirone Butsudan, retaining the initial quality without discoloring even after time passes.


Niigata prefecture, where Shinran the founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect and Nichiren the founder of the Nichiren sect were banished and transported to, has widely accepted Buddhism since ancient times. Repeatedly affected by the raging Shinano River, local residents found peace in Buddhism and grew devout. Rinemon NAGAI, a carpenter who specialized in building Garanshi temples in Kyoto, handed down the art of Buddhist altar-building to Niigata in between 1688 and 1704 (mid-Edo period). Later, while more sculptures and decorations were added to Kyo Butsudan, Niigata Shirone Butsudan attained its originality. In the Tenmei era of the late Edo period (the late 18th century), an integrated production system by five professionals is believed to have been established. Buddhist altars were worshiped among people in Shirone as they suffered from flood damage for a long time, and over 300 years Niigata has been performing steady growth as the center of altar production by virtue of excellent materials and a hot-humid climate suited for drying urushi.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base Niigata Shirone Butsudan mainly uses Japanese cypress and zelkova for the base of an altar. Each piece of wood is carefully selected for its quality and strength so as not to warp as it dries out. Dried completely over a year, wood is cut to predetermined sizes. To make the frame of the Buddhist altar, the wood is first roughly shaved to a required thickness. It is then further shaved and chamfered. The pieces after finished with fine sandpaper, are checked and assembled manually.
  2. 2. Carving Flowers, birds or people are carved in the wooden base according to the designated style of each sect. The design is directly drawn onto the base and carved with dozens of different kinds of chisels and knives. Starting with roughing out, the wooden base goes through semi-fine carving and finish carving to apply a final finish. There are carving techniques including maru-bori (three dimensional carving of a single block of wood), kasane-bori (carving multiple layers of boards to give depth and a three-dimensional appearance), and hira-bori (shallow carving). The depth of the carvings are appropriately adjusted considering the Urushi lacquer and gold leaf in Maki-e to be applied afterwards. Sculptured effects inside the altar are aesthetically pleasing with precise work.
  3. 3. Ornamental fine metal Ornamental fine metal is handcrafted for Buddhist altars. With a number of them, Niigata Shirone Butsudan forges a splendid, solemn atmosphere. Various patterns are engraved in copper or brass using a chisel, and particularly Nanako-monyo, a pattern hammered out with a special chisel called the Nanako chisel, defines Niigata Shirone Butsudan. Engraved fine metal is finished gold-plated or patinated.
  4. 4. Urushi lacquering Urushi lacquering is to paint the wooden base with the sap of the Urushi tree. Ground coating on the surface of the base is always necessary before Urushi lacquering. It involves a repeated process of ground coating the surface evenly, drying and levelling to smooth the surface, which is the key to an exquisite finish. Urushi lacquering is a repeated process of painting the ground-coated surface evenly with Urushi several times, and drying and whetting to smooth the surface and apply a glossy finish. It requires at least three months, but careful manual brushing delivers resonance.
  5. 5. Maki-e Maki-e is a technique of drawing exquisite patterns or designs such as flowers and birds with lacquer using a fine brush, and finishing by sprinkling gold and silver powder, or mother-of-pearl and abalone shells on the Urushi-painted surface. The right timing of sprinkling powder and shells is judged by the artisan’s experience and intuition based on the dryness of the Urushi. Traditional Maki-e techniques include Migaki Maki-e, Taka Maki-e and Hira Maki-e. Taka Maki-e, which is raising the pattern by applying urushi lacquer repeatedly to create a three-dimensional maki-e, radiates an aura of magnificence.
  6. 6. Gilding Gold leaf sheets are cut to the proper size and carefully layered one by one over the surface painted with Hakuoshi Urushi lacquer. A combination of burnishing and matting creates an exquisite finish. Proficient skills make it possible to align the edges of ultrathin gold leaf.

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