Sanjo Buddhist altar Photo:Niigata Prefecture

Sanjo Buddhist altar Sanjo butsudan

An aura of magnificence and grace
Subtle, profound and traditional art


What is Sanjo Buddhist altar ?

Sanjo Butsudan refers to Buddhist altars which are made in the Sanjo area, Niigata Prefecture. With well-established characteristics of elegance and dignity, it is synonymous with a golden Buddhist altar.
Sanjo Butsudan is characterized by the orthodox design of an inner sanctuary, quality handcrafted metal ornaments and exquisite Urushi lacquering. Kuden-zukuri is the inner sanctuary design in analogy to temple architecture, and Sanjo Butsudan is outfitted with the inner sanctuary modeling the head or branch temple. Prospering as the hub of hardware industry, Sanjo City imparted its honed techniques to producing ornamental fine metal for altars, delivering metal ornaments peerless in finished quality.
Sanjo Butsudan adheres to the orthodox design of an inner sanctuary as with Kyo Butsudan, adopting Hozogumi assembly that the wooden base parts are tenoned with no nails, Yumigata Nageshi or Warabigata Nageshi style for a horizontal wooden piece to connect pillars. The Masugumi or Hijiki Masugumi technique is used in building the inner sanctuary.


The Sanjo area, also known as “Butto Sanjo (the capital of the faith),” has always been strongly associated with Buddhism. Once renowned for hardware production during the early Edo Period, but Sanjo transformed itself into the center of Buddhist altar production in the mid-Edo Period following the aggressive construction of large temples. Honjo-ji Temple was built as the grand head temple of the Hokke sect in 1299, and especially the building in 1690 of the Sanjo Betsuin (branch temple) of the Shinshu sect Otani School, known as Higashi Betsuin, drove the city into brisk altar production. A number of local artisans from Sanjo were engaged in the construction of Sanjo Betsuin under the guidance of Miyadaiku (specialists in building shrines and temples) summoned from Kyoto, propelling the Jodo Shinshu sect into widespread adoption among temples and resulting in altar production. This is partly evidenced by the fact that smooth transportation of raw materials by virtue of the waterway traffic flourished on the Shinano River enabled altar production to move into high gear.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Wooden base This process is woodwork called kijizukuri, which is building a wooden base of a Buddhist altar. Carefully selected, wooden pieces are tenoned (hozogumi), which a tenon is inserted into a corresponding mortise hole to joint together with no nails. The Hozogumi-assembled base without nails brings boons to its appearance and strength.
  2. 2. Kuden (inner sanctuary) This process is of building an inner sanctuary called Kuden, which is a miniature shrine where a Buddha statue is enshrined. The Masugumi or Hijiki Masugumi technique is used to build the inner sanctuary. Employing the Kuden-zukuri design, the inner sanctuary of Sanjo Butsudan models that of a temple as closely as possible.
  3. 3. Wood sculpture This process is delicate wood decor carving according to sect-designated designs, using different kinds of chisels and knives.
  4. 4. Ornamental fine metal This process is of handcrafting metal ornaments for Buddhist altars. Exquisite patterns are engraved in a copper or copper alloy sheet using a Tagane chisel.
  5. 5. Urushi lacquering Urushi lacquering is to paint the wooden base with the sap of the Urushi tree. Traditional Urushi lacquering techniques include Nuritate, Nashiji-nuri, and Mokumedashi-nuri, and they with different atmosphere are chosen tailed to an altar design.
    Nuritate is a technique of repeatedly painting the surface with urushi without whetting, providing soft texture peculiar to urushi work. Nashiji-nuri is a technique of finishing the urushi-lacquered surface with Nashiji aventurine made of gold or silver powder, and the naming is derived from a resemblance between the finished surface and the skin of a pear (nashi). Mokumedashi-nuri is a technique of coating urushi to enhance the grain effect of wood. Each technique adds its unique flavor to a finish.
  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. Sanjo Butsudan adopts Hira Maki-e and Sabiage Maki-e techniques for decors.
    Hira Maki-e is known as a basic technique that involves drawing a pattern with urushi lacquer, sprinkling gold powder over it, and coating it with clear urushi lacquer to apply a resonant, fixed finish. Sabiage Maki-e is a type of Taka Maki-e technique that requires coating the surface with Sabi urushi mixed with polishing powder.
  7. 7. Hakuoshi Hakuoshi is of importance to adorn an altar with gold leaf and impart grace and distinction. There are three gilding techniques: Hikari-oshi, Tsuyakeshi-oshi, and Nugui, of which Hikari-oshi (burnishing) and Tsuyakeshi-oshi (matting) are applied to Sanjo Butsudan. Hikari-oshi gives a gold-leafed surface a mirror-smooth gloss finish, while Tsuyakeshi-oshi delivers a matte effect to the surface. Irrespective of the use of the same gold leaf, surface finish varies with the type of paints coated on the surface before gilding.
  8. 8. Assembly Assembly is a final process of Buddhist altar production. The parts are checked thoroughly for dimension error and for gilding and urushi lacquering inadequate finishes, and they are adjusted as needed. All the checked parts are assembled to complete one altar.

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