Osaka Buddhist altar Osaka butsudan
Long history and unchanged traditions
of the splendid gold lacquer
What is Osaka Buddhist altar ?
Osaka Buddhist altars (called Osaka butsudan in Japanese) are produced in the cities of Osaka, Yao, Higashiosaka, Sakai, and Kishiwada in Osaka prefecture. Along with the standard lacquer-painted, gold-leafed altars, this region is also known for production of karakimeiboku altars which utilize the woodgrain patterns of imported wood. This craft uses the technique called taka maki-e which is when maki-e design patterns* are raised with lacquer in a relief design to make it look as if it was decorated with metal ornaments. As the relief patterns do not require nailing, the altar wood does not get damaged. This craft also uses gold-leafed pillars, carved and colored wooden decor, and Buddhist sect-designated metal ornaments on the front of the door. In 1982, Osaka Buddhist altars gained national recognition as a traditional craft for its exceptional techniques.
*Maki-e design patterns are made by using a fine brush to paint a picture with lacquer on a surface, and then sprinkling gold powder on the surface before it dries.
Buddhism has long been deeply linked with Osaka since scriptures were brought in the year 552 when six artisans, including Buddhist statue sculptors, carpenters and craftsmen, moved from the Paekche Kingdom (Korea) to Naniwazu (now the city of Osaka). Four more specialists were invited from Paekche when Prince Shotoku (574-622) built the Shitenno-ji Temple in 593. The artisans and specialists settled and brought the production of Buddhist altars and fittings, which is believed to be the origin of Osaka Buddhist altars. In 1496, a surrounding town developed with the construction of Ishiyama Hongan-ji Temple in Osaka which then led to the expansion of Buddhist altar and altar fitting production. The policies of the Tokugawa shogunate (feudal military government) in the Edo period (1603-1868) also pushed Buddhist altars into widespread adoption, making Osaka Buddhist altar production a stable industry. Colorful Buddhist altars adorned with maki-e designs and a paper sliding door made by Buddhist statue sculptor Ikedaya Yakichi KOBAYASHI during the years 1781-1788 in Noninbashi (today Chuo ward, Osaka) are said to be the original form of this craft.
General Production Process
- 1. Wooden base
This process is the construction of the exterior, ceiling, doors, and drawers, by a woodturner. Osaka Buddhist altars mainly use Japanese cedar, pine, and Japanese cypress that have been dried well.
- 2. Roofing work
This step is building the roof of an inner sanctuary called kuuden placed above the shumidan, where the Buddha statue is enshrined. The kuuden is composed of many small wooden parts such as the bargeboard, masu (wood cut in squares), and ancons. Marked with ink according to predetermined sizes, the wooden pieces are cut out and are finely carved with chisels. The pieces are temporarily assembled.
- 3. Shumidan
The shumidan is a top platform with a constricted center part, which is located in the middle of the altar. Made of dried wood, pieces such as a balustrade called koran, similar to a bridge railing, a constricted center part called ebizuka, and hollowed-out objects for a table placed in the front are attached to the shumidan with glue.
- 4. Front table
The front table, which is located in front of the shumidan, is used to place an incense burner, vase, and candleholder. Made and assembled individually, a wheel guard, body and top panel are secured with wooden or bamboo pegs. The front table is finished by attaching a piece of wood called fude-gaeshi on the edge which is originally to avoid writing brushes from rolling off the desk.
- 5. Wood sculpture
This process is carving the transoms and decorations of the inside of the altar out of Korean pine and Japanese white pine. First, a design is drawn and wood is cut by tracing the design. After an initial rough cutting, the wood is carved finely.
- 6. Lacquering
Traditional lacquering techniques include tatenuri and roiro. Tatenuri is a technique of not polishing after the final lacquer, which leaves a soft texture. First, traditional Japanese paper is layered and a mixture of glue and polishing powder is applied to the surface and dried. Next, it is coated with a mixture of whitewash and glue, burnished and smoothed, painted with lacquer, and dried again. The lacquerware is then polished and after the final lacquer is painted, it is dried in a special drying room.
- 7. Roiro migaki
Unlike the previous lacquering technique, the roiro technique involves repeated polishing. First, the surface is coated with oil-free black lacquer, dried, and smoothed with charcoal. Then, raw lacquer is rubbed in, excess lacquer is wiped off, and the surface is carefully polished with deer antler powder. The burnishing leads to a distinctively deep color and glossy finish.
- 8. Maki-e
Maki-e is a technique of hand-drawing exquisite patterns or designs with lacquer and then sprinkling gold or silver powder on the lacquer. This process includes the takamaki-e technique of raising the design pattern with lacquer without using metal fittings.
- 9. Gilding
A gilding technique is used to layer gold leaf over the lacquer painted surface of the inside of the altar. Lacquer is applied, wiping evenly with cotton, and gold leaf is carefully layered over the surface. The gold-leafed surface is gently pushed down with a cotton cloth to make the surface look seamless. It is then dried in a drying room for the gold leaf to adhere to the surface.
- 10. Coloring
There are two ways of coloring. One is the coloring the wood directly and the other is coloring after the surface is gilded. Pillars are given a three-dimensional appearance with whitewash, decorated with gold-leaf, and then colored.
- 11. Ornamental metal
A design is drawn on a copper or brass sheet and cut out. Exquisite patterns are engraved in the cut-out sheet and any distortions are fixed before applying color or gold-plating.
- 12. Assembly
This is the final process of Osaka Buddhist altars. All of the parts are carefully assembled in sequence to complete one altar.
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