Hiroshima butsudan is great appearance with gold


Hiroshima butsudan, a small-scale embodiment of the temple form

Hiroshima butsudan, as the name implies, are gold butsudan made mainly in Hiroshima Prefecture. A kin-butsudan is a butsudan that is entirely black on the outside, with gold leaf applied on the inside. It is characterized by a solemn atmosphere and looks like a smaller version of a temple as it is.

Gold butsudan made of black and gold are believed to represent the Pure Land world and are mainly used by the Jodo Shinshu sect. The price of a gold butsudan is also determined by the amount of gold leaf used inside and the level of skill used to create its delicate beauty.

Hiroshima butsudan are particularly expensive because of the abundant use of gold leaf and detailed carving. The manufacturing process of Hiroshima butsudan is divided into seven steps, and each step is carried out by a division of labor among specialized craftsmen. The specialized craftsmen in charge of each process are called “Nanasho” (seven artisans), which is a significant feature of the Hiroshima butsudan.

Hiroshima Buddhist altar

History of Hiroshima Butsudan

Hiroshima has long been home to a thriving Jodo Shinshu sect, and the manufacture of butsudan altars for Buddhist monks also flourished in the area. The technology and techniques of Hiroshima butsudan were established in the Edo period. The foundation of Hiroshima butsudan was laid during the Edo period (1603-1868), when a monk named Tonko traveled to Kyoto and Osaka to learn advanced manufacturing techniques for butsudan and butsugu (Buddhist altars and ritual utensils).

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), many Hiroshima butsudan altars were shipped out of the prefecture. It is said that the Seto Inland Sea shipping routes, which were blessed with transportation routes, contributed greatly to the development of Hiroshima butsudan in terms of transporting these bulky altars. By the end of the Taisho period (1912-1926), Hiroshima butsudan production had become the largest in Japan.

Manufacturing Process

1. Kiji (wood base)

The woodworker makes the main body of the altar, including the ceiling, pillars, shoji (paper sliding doors), and doors. The main materials used are cedar, cypress, and pine. The wood is allowed to dry naturally for at least one year after purchase to prevent distortion.

The assembly is done by putting the parts made of wood together in an uneven manner without using any nails. This is called “mortise and tenon assembly,” and it has the advantage of being resistant to earthquakes, etc., and can be easily disassembled and repaired in the event of failure.

2. Palace Construction

The palace where the main statue of Buddha (honzon) is enshrined is built by the “kudenshi” (palace builders). First, small parts of the palace (masu) are made by carving the materials. Then they are assembled into a staircase shape using a technique called “Masu-kumi” and joined together with glue.

3. Wood Engraving

The pattern is drawn on a piece of wood from a pattern and carved using dozens of different carving knives. The carver in charge of each part is different. The carving of a transom is done by a “sama-shi” and the carving of a shumidan is done by a “shumidanshi”. The carving takes from one week to 10 days, and is done with the utmost care and attention to detail.

4. Shokugata (table mold)

The podium is completed. A drawing is made on a piece of wood, which is then hand-carved and hollowed out.

5. Lacquering

Lacquer is applied by a lacquering craftsman. The first coat of lacquer is applied using a primer of polishing powder, which increases the strength of the lacquer. The middle coat is repeated many times, and finally the final coat, made of natural lacquer, is applied evenly and evenly.

There are two types of lacquer: black lacquer and clear lacquer. Black lacquer gives a glossy black luster, while transparence lacquer is used to bring out the grain of the wood.

6. Metal fittings for decoration

Hinges, drawer handles, and many other decorative metal fittings for butsudan are made by “kazari kanagushi. The materials used are copper or brass, which can be easily plated for complex processing. The metal plate is patterned from a paper pattern, and the pattern is punched out with a chisel to create an uneven surface. Gold or silver plating is then applied as a finishing touch. Special techniques are used for coloring in black, brown, blue, etc.

traditional Buddhist altar
Source: Mimura Matsu

7. Maki-e

Maki-e is done by a maki-eshi (maki-e artist) using a maki-e brush, a brush specially designed for maki-e. First, a rough sketch is drawn with lacquer, and before it dries, pure gold powder is sprinkled on the surface and allowed to dry before finishing. The timing for sprinkling the gold powder is a difficult task that is determined by the craftsman’s longtime instincts.

The “Taka-Maki-e technique,” which is considered a superior technique for Hiroshima butsudan, is a technique in which a thick coating of a mixture of gold powder and mica is applied to the surface of the lacquer to give it height and a three-dimensional effect, giving it a luxurious look.

8. Foil Stamping

Gold leaf is applied to the inside of the altar by a lacquer craftsman. The lacquer coating is allowed to dry properly before the pure gold leaf is applied. The gold leaf is very thin (0.1 micron thick) and easily blown away by even the slightest breeze. In particular, the process of applying gold leaf to the uneven areas where patterns have been carved out by engraving is a process that relies on the craftsman’s long-standing technique.

9. Assembly

Finally, the parts finished in each process are assembled into a finished product. The entire product is polished after the metal fittings have been applied, and each Buddhist altar takes at least two months to complete.

Hiroshima Buddhist altar
Source: Mimura Matsu

Key points

The demand for butsudan and the number of craftsmen were greatly reduced after the atomic bombing, but the surviving craftsmen gradually rebuilt the industry, and as a result, in 1978, the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry designated butsudan as “traditional crafts“. The environment surrounding Hiroshima butsudan has become increasingly severe over the years due to the decline in demand for gold butsudan and the shift to overseas production. However, even today, the traditional techniques of Hiroshima butsudan are being passed on to the next generation and are being used not only in the manufacture and restoration of gold butsudan, but also in the restoration of temples.


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