Yamagata Household Buddhist Altars

By the middle of the Edo period (1600-1868), the number of people travelling to and from Kyoto had increased because of the trade in such crops as safflower from Yamagata. As a result, Buddhist altar culture found its way into the area.
Some craftsmen went to distant Edo (Tokyo) to learn carving skills and began working on such things as transoms and other articles related to Buddhism. Subsequently, workers of metal, lacquerers and maki-e decorators began to make household Buddhist altars.

Facings are of zelkova (Zelkova serrata) or sen (Kalopanax septemlobus) which are lacquered to bring out their grain and to give them a warmth. The kuden or inner sanctuary with its bracket assemblies has a heart-warming beauty. The fittings, which are inlaid with arabesque patterns on black, are grand within a composed setting, and the carvings of dragons and heavenly beings have a glittering splendor.


The surface of Yamagata Butsudan household alters are set with woodgrain boards of Japanese zelkova and castor-aralia, which are lacquered in the “Mokumedashita-nuri” technique which accentuates the natural woodgrain, providing a sense of great warmth. The cross lap wood joining technique used to assemble the “Kuden” palace creates a striking beauty which pierces the heart. The “Kanagu” gold-inlaid metal finishing pieces are coated in black lacquer with a paisley pattern, which creates a sense of calm grandeur. The scrolled dragons and celestial maiden carvings create a further sense of brilliant luxury.

How to make

The steps of producing a Yamagata Butsudan household altar are divided into seven primary steps: first the wooden base is made, then the Kuden palace, and engravings are made according to the design, and next Kanagu metal finishings. The frame is then assembled once for adjustment, and then disassembled for lacquering, painting of the Maki-e gold dust paintings, application of gold leaf, and then the setting of the metal finishings before it is finally complete.