Yamagata Buddhist Altar | Magnificent Japanese craftmanship


Yamagata Buddhist Altar

One of the major relief in Japan has been Buddhist over the past 1000 years, and Buddhist Altar has developed various region in the response to the needs of pray for deceased. Yamagata Buddhist Altar is one of them. Some other famous ones are Iiyama Buddhist altar and Hikone Butsudan. Today, we will introduce some information about Yamagata version.

Major Characteristics of Yamagata Butsudan

  1. Palace construction with elbow joints
  2. Gorgeous arabesque patterns, chrysanthemums, flowers, birds, and celestial maidens adorn the columns and pillars.
  3. Black metal fittings] with a chinkin pattern created by a special treatment on the base metal of the metal fittings.
  4. Top coat of lacquer, which is applied and polished several times to finish
  5. High purity No. 1 color gold leaf (traditional craft foil) is used

Although gold butsudan have been pushed aside by the recent spread of karaki butsudan, furniture style butsudan, and inexpensive foreign products, Yamagata butsudan is proud to be a designated producer of traditional crafts, and continues to produce high quality butsudan by carrying on the traditional techniques of the region.

Buddhist Altar
Source: Tohoku Bureau of Economy, Trade and Industry

Yamagata butsudan are produced in seven processes: wood, palace, carving, metal fittings, lacquering, maki-e, and foil stamping/finishing. 250 years of history has nurtured the unique characteristics of Yamagata butsudan, including sturdy construction using zelkova wood with mortise and tenon braces, and deep, detailed design. The palace is decorated with precise palaces and carvings, the black metal fittings have a subdued shine, and the lacquer coating has a warm wood-grain tone. Kane-butsudan, which inherit these characteristics, were designated as a national traditional craft in 1980.

Historical backgroud

Yamagata butsudan is said to have originated in the Kyoho era (1724-1777), when Kibei Hoshino, who learned the techniques in Asakusa, Edo, returned to Yamagata and introduced them. Yamagata originally had an abundance of high-quality lacquer and wood, an environment that protected craftsmen, and the development of the Mogamigawa River shipping system brought superior techniques and culture from the Kansai region. After the Meiji period (1868-1912), the division of labor was divided into seven processes, which has continued to the present day.

Manufacturing Process of Yamagata Buddhist Altar

1.Wooden material

Yamagata butsudan is made through the hands of seven craftsmen in seven separate processes. The first process is the kiji, which is the production of the wooden part. The first step is to make the jogi, from which all the parts are cut. After the wood has been thoroughly dried, it is taken out of the wood and carefully formed into shape. Once the wood is ready, the inner and outer members of the altar are temporarily assembled. It is said that the process of making the wooden base accounts for most of the work, and about one month is needed for this process alone to make one Yamagata butsudan.

2. Palace (kuden)

The solemn and splendid kuden (palace), which is the hallmark of Yamagata butsudan, is produced. The wood used for the kuden is larch, hiba (Betula platyphylla var. platyphylla), and hornbeam, all of which are easy to delicately craft. The intricate palace is temporarily assembled in the inner sanctuary by combining the detailed components necessary for the palace. For example, even the assembly of a small square after the girders are assembled is a delicate and time-consuming process that takes two expert craftsmen 10 days to complete.

3. Carving

This is the process of carving the banners and pillars that create the bright and colorful atmosphere of Yamagata butsudan. Decorations are carved into soft and easy-to-carve materials such as linden. The basic pattern is arabesque, to which are added flowers such as peonies and chrysanthemums, birds such as peacocks, cranes, and phoenixes, and celestial maidens.

Source: Yamagata Prefecture Commerce Promotion and Community Development Division

In the engraving process, craftsmen often make their own engraving knives that allow them to use their own techniques. This is a process in which the craftsman can demonstrate his or her particular skills by choosing or creating an engraving knife according to the pattern to be engraved.

4. Painting

In this process, the wood and carved parts are coated with lacquer and polished, a process that is repeated for about two months. Since lacquer dries more easily when it is moist, a wooden box called a “bath” is used, and wet paper is laid on the bottom to allow the lacquer to dry.

manufacturing processes of altar
left: Painting  center: Maki-e, right: Haku-oshi

5. Metal fittings

The unique design of the Yamagata butsudan is copied onto a copper or brass plate. Then, skilled craftsmen use hundreds of different chisels to create subtle patterns on the metal plate. In the final stage of metalworking, the metal fittings are plated in black or gold to create a majestic altar.

6. Maki-e

About seven times, the urushi lacquer is removed using Japanese paper to remove fine dust and other particles. It is important to carefully remove dust and dirt before the maki-e process begins. The dignified design of the Yamagata Buddhist altar is drawn in lacquer, and gold and silver powder is sprinkled over the design. Makie (sprinkling) is a decorative process that makes the picture appear to float, as if shining with light.

7. HAKU-OSHI (foil stamping) and structuring

Gold leaf is gently pressed and applied over the lacquer coating. The process of foil pressing is the process of decorating the altar into a golden altar. The gold leaf used for foil stamping is very thin, and as many as 1,300 sheets of gold leaf are applied to a single Yamagata butsudan. The very thin gold leaf is sensitive to even the slightest breeze, so even in mid-summer, the windows are closed to prevent wind from entering the work, which requires great care. Bamboo chopsticks are used for the stamping to prevent the gold leaf from sticking to the chopsticks due to static electricity. At the end of all the processes, the Yamagata Butsudan is assembled and completed.


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