Yamagata Buddhist altar Yamagata butsudan
Robust appearance adorned with massive splendor of gold leaf
Unique design enhanced by subdued “black fittings”
Yamagata Butsudan refers to Buddhist altars which are mainly made in Yamagata City, Tendo City, Obanazawa City, and Sakata City, Yamagata Prefecture, which distinguishes the prefecture as the largest center of altar production in the Tohoku region. Kichibei HOSHINO, who learned sculpture techniques in Edo, handed them down to Yamagata through producing Buddhist altar fittings and transoms in the Edo Period, setting the stage for Yamagata Butsudan. The basin structure bringing about a vigorous growth of Urushi work in Yamagata, Hirotaka KICHIBEI the second initiated altar production with expert craftsmen in Urushi work, Maki-e work and metalwork.
Yamagata Butsudan is characterized by its robustness harmonized with the warmth of wood and urushi lacquer. A zelkova or kalopanax woodgrain board on the front of the altar wooden base requires a coat applied to enhance the grain effect of wood, radiating an aura of beauty and magnificence. Gorgeous decorative patterns, such as an angel, chrysanthemum and bird, grace the arabesque-designed transoms and pillars, and specially-treated black fittings are adopted as ornamental fine metal. With an ancon and square framing, elegant Kuden (inner sanctuary) offers enchanting beauty in repose.
Gaining acclaim as a renowned area of Yamagata Butsudan production, it has been striving to pursue the demand development of new Buddhist altars to suit a modern house and space in recent years.
Yamagata Prefecture was endowed with abundant forest resources that allowed woodwork to take root and high-quality Urushi lacquer from the surrounding mountains that paved the way for the Urushi industry.
In Edo Period, safflower trading began in keeping with the development of the waterway traffic flourished by the Mogami River, where culture and industrial art were introduced from Kyoto and Osaka. The favorable environment was taking the skills of artisans in Yamagata to a higher level.
Situated overlooking the spectacle of the three mountains of Dewa, Yamagata had a grounding in faith. Kichibei HOSHINO, who learned sculpture techniques in Edo, handed them down to Yamagata through producing Buddhist altar fittings and transoms, setting the prosperous stage for Yamagata Butsudan. In Meiji Period, Buddhist altar production assumed a dominant position in the local industry, employing an integrated production system by seven professionals to go into mass production. Upholding golden alter production against the tide of the times, Yamagata Butsudan boasts the integrated production system that encourages respective expert craftsmen to enhance their techniques to carry on the tradition while maintaining its premium quality and uniqueness.
General Production Process
- 1. Wooden base
Yamagata Butsudan undergoes seven process steps, which are professionally handcrafted by respective expert craftsmen. The first process is woodwork called kiji, which is building a wooden base. Wood is cut out to be suitable for respective uses with respect to marks on a measuring stick measuring stick called jogi, and cutout wood is carefully shaped after it dries completely. This process includes a temporary assembly of parts to make the inside and outside of a Buddhist altar. This process is said to account for most of the production time, requires roughly a month to build a single Yamagata Butsudan.
- 2. Kuden (inner sanctuary)
This process is of building a majestic and exquisite sanctuary called Kuden that defines Yamagata Butsudan. With materials suitable for delicate work, Japanese Lime, Japanese cypress or Japanese bigleaf magnolia are used for a sanctuary. Elaborate parts require deliberate and precise assembly to build an inner sanctuary tentatively in the inner chamber. Even small masu pieces with a beam formed involve arduous, elaborate assembly requiring 10 days to be completed by two artisans.
- 3. Wood sculpture
This process is wood decor carving on transoms and pillars to add a resplendent, bright note to Yamagata Butsudan. In concert with arabesque as a basic design, mainly a flower such as tree peony and chrysanthemum, bird such as a peacock, crane and Chinese phoenix, or angel is carved in a softwood piece including Japanese Lime as decorative pieces for the altar.
Sculptors often make their own chisels and knives to maximize their techniques in decor carving. Chisels and knives are carefully selected or made tailored to a design, showing adept craftsmanship.
- 4. Urushi lacquering
Urushi lacquering involves a repeated process of painting the wooden base and carved decors with the sap of the Urushi tree and polishing them for two months. Urushi lacquer dries quicker in moist environments, allowing urushi drying in a wooden cabinet called furo which has wet paper at the bottom.
- 5. Ornamental fine metal
Traced on a copper or brass plate, distinctive and exquisite patterns are engraved using hundreds of different kinds of chisels by artisans. Engraved fine metal is finished black- or gold-plated, forging a solemn atmosphere.
- 6. Maki-e
Maki-e, a highly respected traditional decoration process, starts with removing fine dust while wiping the Urushi-painted surface with Japanese paper, seven times. Careful pre-work cleaning yields a deep beauty. Graceful, defining patterns or designs are drawn with Urushi lacquer, and then sprinkled with gold or silver powder to deliver an exquisite finish. Maki-e techniques allow the design to look raised and radiant.
- 7. Hakuoshi and Assembly
Hakuoshi is a gilding technique to layer a gold leaf carefully over the Urushi-painted surface with Hakuoshi Urushi applied, bestowing an exquisite finish to the gold-leafed altar. Yamagata Butsudan requires 1,300 ultrathin gold leaves layered on a single altar. Gold leaf is extremely susceptible to a breeze, which forces all windows to remain closed during gilding even in the midsummer with utmost caution.
With antistatic characteristics that enable an ultrathin gold leaf to come off, bamboo chopsticks are used to pick it up. The Urushi-painted, gold leaf-decorated parts are assembled carefully to build Yamagata Butsudan.