Handy craft Black & Gold

50,Serinaka-cho,Hikone,Shiga 522-0031,JAPAN
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We are deeply grateful to Ms.Carla Eades for this research of Hikone Butsudan, which has never been before in Japan and so valuable to us.
These contents are excerpted from the research”The Butsudan Experience” by Ms.Carla Eades ( under the excerpt authorization and added some photos by Inoue butsudan ten. All rights reserved.

1. What is a Butsudan ?

A butsudan is basically a dark coloured cabinet with a double set of doors, and various drawers and shelves inside.

Traditionally it was placed in a special room (butsuma), decorated in Japanese style with tatami mats, a hanging scroll and flower arrangement, where guests would customarily be welcomed.

When the doors of the butsudan are open, as they usually are, the focal point is a stand or pedestal (shumidan) on which usually stands a small Buddhist statue, surmounted by a pillared canopy (kuuden). Other ornaments may be placed on smaller stands (joudan) to each side of the main shumidan. Buddhist scriptures are stored in the drawers and compartments and paraphernalia for worship (butsugu) are kept on the shelves. Therefore one obvious purpose of the butsudan is Buddhist worship.

However, over the years in Japanese society, its role has come to include, to varying degrees, a way of remembering and communicating with the ancestors. Therefore, inside the butsudan, we can find stacks of plaques (ihai) written with the Buddhist names of the ancestors and memorabilia of interest to them, such as graduation of marriage certificates and postcards. When visitors arrive, presents brought to the family are placed in front of the butsudan and often the guests will also say a short prayer there before joining the rest of the party.

Hikone is one of 15 regions especially designated by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), as a traditional butsudan production area. Although each production Area has its own particular style, Hikone designs have the advantage of being acceptable to customers in other parts of Japan.

Making a Hikone Butsudan

Making a butsudan in the traditional way involves the collaboration of more than seven different kinds of artisans. Each of these artisans undergoes an apprenticeship of between five and ten years. If they then wish to obtain official certification as traditional artisans (dentou kougei shi or DKS), it is necessary to pass quite rigorous written and-practical exams.

The flow chart outlines the complete production process, as carried out by the seven artisans, from the original order to the final delivery.

Making of a Hikone butsudan

Of these seven types of craftsmen, three are woodworkers, two are lacquer workers and two are metal workers.

The three wood artisans are the kijishi who makes the body or carcass of the butsudan, the kuudenshi who makes the palace or canopy that surmounts the statue of the Buddha and the choukokushi who does the carvings that decorate the butsudan.

When these three artisans have finished their work, the kiji, kuuden and choukoku are passed on to the nurishi who applies several layers of lacquer (urushi), giving them a black or reddish appearance.
After this, the parts will be separated for further finishing by different artisans. A layer of gilding can be applied by the kinpakuoshishi, using gold leaf {kinpaku), or by thefondameshi, using gold powder (kinpun).

Alternatively a picture (makie), using lacquer and gold powder, may be put on certain areas by the makieshi.

Finally, the kazari kanagu shi makes the metal fittings to decorate the doors, drawers and shelf fronts. The same artisan also makes the more functional door fittings, such as knobs and hinges. When these are finished, they may also be gold plated and or lacquered.

Lastly all the butsudan parts will be sent back to the shop for assembly (kumitate) by special artisans, so that it is ready for delivery.

Customarily, companies (toiya) both large and small oversee the production of a butsudan. They have display areas where the customer can come and select a ready made item or make special requests considering budget or choices to emphasize certain skills. The toiya may have workshops themselves or they may delegate the work to their favoured artisans.


The high technical level of cabinet making, for instance, is hidden from view by layers of lacquer and then gold and yet the kijishi trains for upwards of 10 years, taking pride in his developing skills and his success in the end. Butsudan, which require wood, lacquer and metal working skills, are an integral part of Japanese peoples' lives, so we think it is a suitable example of a traditional Japanese art.

The kiji comes first in the butsudan production process. It the kijishi is job to make the cabinet of the butsudan, including the three back pieces (mukouita), the sides (gawaita), the inner lattice doors (shouji) and outer solid doors (amado), as well as the base (shimodaiwa) and the top sections (kamidaiwa and gomitori). He also makes the inner shelves, drawers, sliding doors, Buddha pedestal (shumidan), and side boxes (joudan). Finally the kijishi makes the frames for the carvings and all the pillars except those related to the kuuden.



Anyone gazing up at a temple, clearly understands the magnificance of Japanese carpentry. It encapsulates the mastery of woodworking skills like nothing else. Then again, when we look inside a Japanese family altar (butsudan), at the small but intricate canopy or palace (kuuden) which surrounds the Buddha statue, we see a mini version of the temple.

This artisan gives shape to the butsudan's internal form, gluing together the small bits of wood that make up the inner altar, from its round columns to he separate tiles of its roof. This finely detailed task involves the making of up to several thousand separate wooden parts, and assembling them in the same manner used in the construction of full-scale Buddhist temples.


Each of the seven crafts that go into making a traditional butsudan requires long years of training and high levels of expertise and has its own special appeal. However, on first viewing a butsudan, it may well be the carvings that have the most immediate impact. While technically all carvings are 'inside' the butsudan, if the outer doors (amado) are open but the inner lattice doors (shouji) are closed, the front transom carving, or sama, is visible and maximally eye-catching. The sama is based on and looks similar to the ranma found in temples or the traditional rooms of a Japanese house. When the sliding doors partitioning a large room are removed, the highly decorative ranma, placed above the doorframe, still serves as a theoretical if not structural divider. Similarly, the butsudan sama marks a boundary between the outer secular world and the inner spiritual world.

Thus conceptually the choukokushi divides his work into two parts: 'outside' sama carving(s) and all the other 'inside' ones, collectively called uchibori or uchi mawari.


Lacquering (nuri) is the 4th stage in butsudan production. After all the woodwork is finished, the pieces are sent to the lacquering artisan (nurishi) who coats them with lacquer (urushi) using various techniques depending on the taste and budget of the customer. All visible surfaces will be covered. Urushi is applied very thinly, so thinly in fact that 100 layers would be about 3mm thick. In general, though, the butsudan nurishi applies only two to five layers. It will then either be left as such or will form the foundation for gold leaf (kinpaku) or gold powder (kinpun). Since there is never any gilding on the outside surfaces of a butsudan, we often see lacquering in its full glory when looking at a closed butsudan. Two styles, which are commonly used in making a Hikone butsudan, are that of lacquering in plain black (kuro nuri) or, alternatively, using a clear lacquer so that the grain of the wood base shows through clearly (mokume dashi nuri). When put together, these two techniques can accentuate each other, creating a strikingly beautiful product.

Before going on to look at style, tools, materials, and finally the whole lacquering
process, let us consider exactly what the word of lacqueringo means. We talk about
lacquer as a coating material, or urushi in Japanese. We can also talk about lacquer as a style of coating, meaning the whole process. In Japanese that is nuri. Actually the application of the urushi coating is only a part of the whole lacquering process. From nuri figure 1, we can see how the layers accumulate in the stages described below.

lacquering process

  1. The foundation or base stage (shitaji) consists of two or three layers and actually accounts for the majority of the total thickness, up to about 2mm of the total 3mm. Before any filling layers are applied, an optional layer of cloth or paper may be put on high quality products or on a large area where it is deemed necessary to prevent warping.

  2. The lacquering stage (nuri) is where the coating material (urushi) is applied. In the Akimichi workshop, they use 2 layers. This is common practice for butsudan production. For all lacquering styles, the total thickness might be lmm but where it is polished, as in roiro finishing, some of this might be lost.

  3. The final polishing stage (uwazuri) is where raw umshi is applied several times and then polished. The number of layers can vary and the total addition to the thickness is negligible. Either wet or dry grinding or polishing takes place between most of the above coatings.



Lacquer-ware and lacquer work are an important part of Japanese culture. Yet what is Japanese urushi? According to an NHK survey, when asked where raw lacquer (kiurushi) comes from, most people did not know that only 1% is produced in Japan, while the other 99% comes from aborad, mainly from China, but also from Vietnam etc. Even by the end of Meiji Period, about 80 % of raw lacquer was imported from China.


After the lacquering work is finished, the individual pieces are sent back to the merchant (toiya) who then distributes them for gilding or to have lacquer and gold pictures (makie) added. The fifth process in butsudan production is thus the work of the picture artisan or makieshi. This consists of drawing pictures in lacquer, applying gold powder, then adding coloured lacquer and highlighting details with fine lines where desired.

The parts most commonly decorated with makie are lower sections of the shouji and the fronts of small doors and drawers inside the butsudan. Because of their delicacy, makie are never seen on the outside of the butsudan. When the makieshi gets the boards from the toiya, they will already have been lacquered. As mentioned in the previous section on nuri, they may have either highly polished roiro nuri or unpolished tatenuri finishing. All styles of makie can be put on boards finished in either of these ways. However the artisans have very distinct views
about which is best. "Roiro is easier to work on," says a makieshi. "Of course, on the roiro board makie will be more vivid (alive). The picture will be clear. It stands out better. The contrast between the black board and gold powder will be good. If you do the polished style of makie (migaki makie), the picture will be very shiny , because the board is completely flat. After applying raw lacquer (kiurushi) and then polishing, results with the roiro board are better. A tatenuri board doesn't give such a good result. It is an indescribable difference, but even you (laymen) would recognize it. Only roiro-lacquered boards will show the lustre, nobility and elegance which are the characteristics of urushi lacquering."


There are several possible starting points for a discussion of the different styles and types of gilding. The following gives a simplified overview of what is covered in more detail later in the text. starting with the gold material itself, we will go on to the different methods of gilding, the types of pre-gilding surfaces prepared by the lacquerer (nurishi), and finally, the distribution of gold on the final butsudan. All these aspects will have some bearing on the appearance of the finished work.

Types of gold:
A large, high quality butsudan requires 1,700 leaves. Of these, 300 are necessary for the inside walls of the kiji (ita), while the rest are used for the doors, pillars, komono and carvings. Each gold leaf measures approximately 12.6 cm square. Its thickness varies between 0.1 to 0.2 microns, the miniscule variation being invisible to the layman. Copper and silver are added to improve the colour and malleability of the gold ingot for purposes leaf making, but by and large, it has a purity of 96%, equivalent to 23 K gold [23 karat = 23/24 = 0.958].

For an expensive butsudan, each leaf is cut individually and sandwiched between
sheets of specially made paper. This leaf is called entsuki and is used for the large flat surfaces (ita) and sometimes the smaller parts (komono). Cheaper butsudan are gilded with a type of leaf called tachikiri. As the name implies, these leaves are cut all together after being put between sheets of paper to make stacks of over 1000. It is the stacking paper used for entsuki that determines its price. As the gold leaf seller from Kanazawa explains, the quality of the gold is the same. As for flaws, such as breaks and holes, there is no difference. It is the quality of the papers that differs and of course the cutting time. Tachikiri paper is much quicker to make but it contains some sulphate and carbon, which are applied to the paper to prevent static. Sometimes the carbon sticks to the surface of the leaf. Also, there will be a colour change after 10 or 20 years.

When the leaf is cut, the edges are not wasted, but rather turned into powder. Thus gilding can be done with leaf (kinpaku) or powder (fun) or even both together (nuguifuri).

Methods of gilding:
Leafing produces a rather shiny surface where the joins between the squares are more or less visible. Powdering, on the other hand, gives a smoother, more luxuriant and absolutely uniform surface. A butsudan may be finished with either of these styles, but just as often both may be used in different places on the butsudan.The ceiling and inner walls may be covered in leaf, because it reflects light well, while the carvings, pillars and inner doors may be treated with powder. Rarely, a type of treatment called nuguifim (nugui haku) is used in which leaf is applied all over the surface and then powder is put onto any cracks or breaks.

In reality, leaf and powder are equally durable if they are not touched. Normally the gold surfaces, which are only on the insides of the butsudan, are handled as little as possible. However they must be dusted occasionally and in that case, leaf is more durable than powder. Thilding on the very highest quality items may occasionally be covered with a final coating of clear urushi to give maximum protection.


Kanagu-making can be classified into two basic styles: those that use heat and those that don't. These are quite different techniques and are thus done by differently trained artisans. The kebori artisan works without heat and produces elaborately engraved designs simply by punching with burins (tagane). Variations on this can be done with slight embossing (ukibori) or by cutting right through the metal to give an open design (sukashibori).

On the other hand, the jibori artisan uses heat to soften the metal so it may be pounded (embossed) and sculpted to produce a high relief design.

Both of these styles, when placed in suitable positions on the butsudan, are beautiful in their own right.

To understand the classification of metal fittings clearly, please consider the table:


Production method: Handmade fittings:

Kebori artisan, Masaaki says, "The difference between the hand-made fittings and 'pressed' goods is that the machine punches the whole pattern: flower, stems and leaves, background texture (nanako), all at one time. The same pattern over and over, many mass-produced products, with no variation." They make a template for this so it is not economical unless they can reproduce it many times. "In the case of handmade fittings," continues Masaaki, "I can make an assortment of patterns, for example mixing open and half open flowers, buds, even the backs offlowers. In the case of 'pressed' fittings, exactly the same pattern will be pressed onto all the fittings ofa set. For example a set for nageshi will have the same patterns. And in the case of hand made fittings, for example among a 5-piece set, I can change the design, size and proportion of the pieces. Sometimes I change them intentionally so people can see it is done by hand.
With pressed pieces they all have the same length and same design. With handmade I can make the central piece a little bigger than the others. Or I can make some part of it a cut out design (sukashibori). Or make the flowers face in different directions such as the side two flowers facing the middle one." However, sadly the following mass-produced items are becoming more and more popular.

The kebori artisan, Sawatari Masaaki in his workshop

Here, he sits on his cushion surrounded by tools, tapping busily on a piece of brass or copper, placed on a tree stump that was his father's and his grandfather's before that.

Masaaki's working equipment

Masaaki is talented, innovative and very independently minded. He says, "I'm doing my work in my way. My way might be different from butsudm shops and also different from other metal artisans." He says that devising new patterns that can't be copied or mass-produced is the key. And it is true that even though the economic climate is not good for artisans he still has work coming in.

Pattern making burins(horitagane) with ridged edges

Whole pattern burins(moyou tagane)

Inquiry about these contents, butsudan etc.
Don'ft hesitate to contact us.

INOUE BUTSUDAN TEN (Buddhist altar company)
PHONE: +81-749-22-1587

These contents are excerpted from the research "The Butsudan Experience" by Ms.Carla Eades ( under the excerpt authorization and added some photos by Inoue butsudan ten. All rights reserved.



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