By Bryan Baier
The battering rain does not obscure the deep serenity of INOUE - one of the very few handcraft Butsudan (Buddhist altar) shops in Japan. This is a quiet, peaceful space in Hikone that offers a comprehensive workshop tour, for everyone to experience the essence of traditional Japanese craftsmanship.
Shichi Inoue, the owner of INOUE Butsudan, takes us into the heart of the shop as he introduces the history of butsudan-making and the area. Nanamagari has been a rendezvous for skilled artisans from all around Japan, for well over 350 years, making it the perfect place for butsudan - one that requires meticulous and skilled craftsmanships.
The dying traditions
As we enter the back of the shop where the butsudans are displayed, for a brief moment, we are lost for words. From the intricacy of its nail-less structure and exquisiteness of the sculptures, the butsudans manifest the cultural aesthetics in a tangible form.
This is the reason why Mr. Inoue, as the 4th generation owner of the shop, is very, very eager to revive the dying industry. Like his forebears, Mr. Inoue has been dedicated to safeguarding the country’s traditional craftsmanships practices. He tells us that none of the artisans is below 50 years old, but they are all delighted to leverage their expertise, to promote the fading practices to the world through the form of workshops.
Meeting the artisan
The trembling hands of the chaser in his late 50s have no effect on the quality of his work. Being part of the 7 stages of butsudan making, the chaser is responsible for the beautiful decorative metal plates on the butsudan. He demonstrates to us what 40 years of experience really meant by swiftly crafting a complex pattern on the copper plate without much effort.
As we get a go with his chisel and hammer, he explains that it takes at least 10 years for anyone to master the techniques. You can see the sadness through his eyes at this point. He sighs that no one is interested to put the effort and time for crafting, and the tools he currently uses, bequeathed from his parents, are the only ones left. The precision and quality of these handmade tools are above par, and there is only one shop left in Japan that could repair his worn-out ones.
Out of the three, I chose the Gold Leafing Workshop because it seemed to be very manageable, but I was wrong. Coating a thin layer of lacquer glue is simple enough, but the 0.0001 millimetres thin gold leaf makes it almost impossible to pick even it up without tearing it, not to say pasting it onto the ornament’s surface. The effort and patience do pay off as the end result is phenomenal.
Making a reservation
The workshop tour must be reserved a week in advance via the official site. English interpretation service is available, but the tour is limited to 13:30 - 16:00 from Monday to Sunday, except Tuesday and public holidays.
The Butsudan Workshop is 20 minutes walk away from Hikone station.
Was this article helpful?
Like many others from Hong Kong, Japan feels like a second home to me. Having been to Japan for more than twenty times, it has never failed to surprise me with something new and exciting. As a Digital Media Arts student at the University of Surrey in the UK, I am keen on using media, particularly photography, to share both my observations and recommendations of the places I have visited around Japan. I hope my content will come in handy, especially when you are heading to the lesser known areas in Japan.