Niigata-shirone Buddhist altar Niigata shirone butsudan
Luxurious and elaborate Maki-e decorations
Elegant, exquisite, sophisticated finish
Niigata Shirone Butsudan refers to Buddhist altars which are mainly made in Niigata City, Niigata Prefecture. A base of an altar usually uses Japanese cypress, zelkova, Japanese cherry, Japanese white pine and pine. 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 main structure of a palace incorporates a unique technique, Hiramasugumi, which allows easy assembly and disassembly, even in refurbishment. This technique enables easy repair of detailed parts, maintaining historical architectures in good condition after centuries. Niigata Shirone Butsudan undergoes five process steps, which are professionally handcrafted by respective expert craftsmen in woodwork, sculpture, metalwork, Urushi work and Maki-e work. The gorgeous rich effects of real gold leaf, gold painting and Maki-e decorating an Urushi 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-shu sect were exiled and sent, 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 Era). Adorned with more sculpture and decoration to Kyo Butsudan, Niigata Shirone Butsudan attained its originality eventually. 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 in the throes of longstanding flood damage, 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. Wooden base
Niigata Shirone Butsudan mainly uses Japanese cypress and zelkova for a base of an altar. Each piece of wood is carefully selected for its quality and strength not to warp as it dries out.
Dried completely over a year, wood is cut to predetermined sizes and undergoes process steps. Building the frame of a Buddhist altar involves Arakezuri (rough grinding to a required thickness), Nakakezuri (semi-fine grinding) and Mendori (chamfering). The pieces after Shiage-kezuri (finishing with fine sandpaper) are checked and assembled manually.
- 2. Wood sculpture
A flower, bird or person is carved in the wooden base according to a sect-designated style. With a design directly drawn onto the base, dozens of different kinds of chisels and knives are used for decor carving. 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 (carving in three dimensions from a solid block of wood), Kasane-bori (carving multiple layers of boards to give depth and a three-dimensional appearance, and Hira-bori (carving shallower than the surface).
Thickness is appropriately adjusted allowing for lacquering Urushi and applying gold leaf in Maki-e when carving. Sculptured effects inside the altar are aesthetically pleasing with precise work.
- 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 Nanako chisel, defines Niigata Shirone Butsudan.
Engraved fine metal is finished gold-plated or patinated while utilizing the color of materials.
- 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 (Nakanuri and Uwanuri), drying and whetting to smooth the surface and apply a glossy finish. It requires at least three months and repeated process, but careful manual brushing delivers resonance.
- 5. Maki-e
Maki-e is a technique of drawing exquisite patterns or designs such as flowers and birds using a fine brush, with gold and silver powder, and mother-of-pearl and abalone shells sprinkled on the Urushi-painted surface. The right timing of sprinkling powder and shells is judged by the artist’s experience and intuition based on dryness of Urushi.
Traditional Maki-e techniques include Migaki Maki-e, Taka Maki-e and Hira Maki-e. Especially Taka Maki-e, burnished Urushi raised Maki-e, radiates an aura of magnificence.
- 6. Kinpakuoshi Kinpakuoshi is a gilding technique to layer gold leaf, which is cut to the proper size, carefully over the Urushi-painted surface with Hakuoshi Urushi applied. A combination of Tsuyadashi (burnishing) and Tsuyakeshi (matting) bestows an exquisite finish to a gold-leafed object. Proficient skills make it possible to align the edges of ultrathin gold leaf.