Buddhist altars made in Shiga Prefecture

Butsudan woodcarver Mori Tesso in Maibara.

Butsudan woodcarver Mori Tesso in Maibara.

Updated: May 7, 2016

Shiga Prefecture has three handicrafts officially designated as a “Traditional Craft” by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (経済産業大臣指定伝統的工芸品). “Traditional crafts” as defined by the Japanese government are handicrafts used in everyday life that are largely handmade using traditional techniques and traditional materials. And they are made in a specific area.

Shiga’s three designated traditional crafts are Omi jofu hemp cloth (近江上布), Shigaraki pottery (信楽焼), and Hikone butsudan (彦根仏壇) or household Buddhist altars made in Hikone.

Japan has over thirty cities and areas that produce household Buddhist altars (“butsudan” in Japanese). Fifteen of them are officially designated as a “Traditional Craft Production Area” (伝統的工芸品産地指定) by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. These areas include the cities of Yamagata, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Niigata, Osaka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, and Hikone. They all have been making butsudan since the Edo Period. In 1975, Hikone butsudan became Japan’s first butsudan to be officially designated as a “traditional craft.”

Hikone butsudan is thus one of Shiga’s signature products. However, Shiga actually has two traditional butsudan manufacturing areas. Besides Hikone butsudan made in Hikone and MaibaraHama butsudan (浜仏壇), commonly called “Hama-dan” (浜壇) which is short for “Nagahama butsudan,” is made in Nagahama, Maibara, and Hikone. Although Hikone butsudan is more famous nationally due to its official designation, Hama-dan is not inferior in any way. Interesting how the Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan production bases are right next to each other, but they have different origins, histories, and designs. Since there is virtually zero English information about Hama-dan, this article will also shed some light on Hama-dan.

butsudan

Hikone butsudan and certified craftsman.

butsudan

Hama-dan Buddhist altar in Mori Tesso’s home. Guess how much it cost? (Read below.)

Chube'e

Buddhist altar room in Itoh Chube’e Memorial House in Toyosato.

Traditional butsudan are like miniature Buddhist temples in Japanese homes. They are more common in rural (old) Japanese-style homes (with tatami mats) than in urban condominiums/apartments. A Japanese-style home may even have a Buddhist altar room called butsuma (仏間) designed for a large butsudan to fit into an alcove.

Japanese families keep a butsudan to memorialize and pray to deceased family members and ancestors. Photos of the recently deceased or small vertical tablets (ihai) inscribed with their names may adorn or complement the butsudan along with various Buddhist implements (candle holders, rice offering holders, incense burner, bell, etc.). They all direct attention to the butsudan’s central figure that is usually a Buddha statue or scroll. While praying in front of the butsudan, a family member might even “talk” or “report” to the deceased about their lives and achievements.

During the obon season in mid-August and on the anniversary of a family member’s passing, the family may hire a Buddhist priest to conduct a memorial service in front of their household Buddhist altar. The butsudan thereby unifies and bonds living family members as it reminds them of their common ancestors. And it’s much more convenient than going to the gravesite to pray to the deceased.

The practice of keeping a Buddhist altar at home is unique to Japan. They don’t do it in other Buddhist countries like Thailand. It supposedly began in the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), but it didn’t spread until the Edo Period in the 17th century. When Christians were being persecuted in Japan, butsudan is said to have spread among families who wanted to show that they were not Christian. However, fewer and fewer modern homes in Japan today are not designed to have a butsudan, so fewer and fewer families buy and keep a butsudan.

Butsudan is not to be confused with kami-dana (神棚) which are household Shinto altars (miniature Shinto shrines). Keeping a household altar is a common practice in both Buddhism and Shinto. But butsudan and kami-dana altars look totally different and serve different functions.

Kami

Kami-dana household Shinto altar in a Hino merchant’s home.

dana

Kami-dana for sale.

The household Shinto altar is generally less ornate (mostly bare wood) and smaller than butsudan and are mounted high on a shelf toward the ceiling. It is usually dedicated to a local Shinto god or the god of one’s profession. Household members commonly pray to kami-dana for family safety, good health, and business prosperity. Kami-dana is quite common among business owners.

In a nutshell, butsudan are dedicated to the deceased, while kami-dana are dedicated to the living. Also, you don’t have to be Buddhist to keep a butsudan nor a Shinto believer to have a kami-dana. A home may even have both, as many Japanese worship or respect both Buddhism and Shinto. Families commonly hold both Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals even though Shinto funerals and Buddhist weddings are perfectly fine. Even professional sumo wrestlers commonly have Buddhist funerals (sumo is a Shinto sport). When it comes to religion in Japan, things are not so black and white.

Besides serving spiritual and family functions, the traditional butsudan is a major assemblage of intricate, elaborate, and ornate artwork. It provides the livelihoods of highly-skilled traditional craftsmen and artisans required to make a butsudan. There are at least seven types of traditional craftsmen involved in making a butsudan: Cabinet maker (kiji-shi 木地師) who makes the wooden exterior cabinet, inner altar builder (kuden-shi 宮殿師) who makes the butsudan’s inner sanctum complete with a temple-like roof, woodcarver (chokoku-shi 彫刻師) who carves the transoms and Buddha statue, lacquer painter (nuri-shi 漆塗り師) who lacquers the cabinet, gold leaf gilder (kinpaku-oshi-shi 金箔押し師), metallic ornament maker (kazari-kanagu-shi 錺金具師) who makes metallic fittings and ornaments, and maki-e artist (makie-shi 蒔絵師) who creates lacquer decorations with sprinkled gold powder. The butsudan parts are then assembled by the butsudan shop that received the customer’s order. The best traditional craftsmen can also be certified with the official title of “Traditional Craftsman” (伝統工芸士) from the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Installing a metallic fitting on Hikone butsudan.

Attaching a metallic hinge on Hikone butsudan door.

butsudan

Hikone butsudan is very gold.

Hikone butsudan is classified as a kin-butsudan (gold Buddhist altar 金仏壇) in reference to the abundant use of gold leaf (made of 95%+ pure gold). Like Kanazawa butsudan in Ishikawa Prefecture (famous for gold leaf) and Kyoto butsudan, Hikone butsudan looks very gold and is regarded as a high-end butsudan. The lacquer is glossy and the wood is usually hinoki cypress, zelkova (keyaki), or Japanese cedar.

Hikone butsudan originated in the mid-Edo Period (17th-18th centuries). Traditional craftsmen such as cabinet makers, lacquerware artists, and metallic ornament makers who had produced samurai swords, helmets, armor, etc., switched to making Buddhist altars as a peaceful pursuit during the peaceful Edo Period. It started with a lacquerware merchant who made a butsudan after learning from Kyoto butsudan sometime during 1624-44. As household Buddhist altars became more common, the Hikone daimyo (Ii Clan) officially sanctioned and protected the butsudan makers’ livelihoods. Many of these craftsmen lived in the Nanamagari area (七曲がり) of Hikone where a number of butsudan craftsmen and shops still remain while other craftsmen are scattered about in Hikone. In Nanamagari, you can visit butsudan shops and perhaps see an artisan at work or take a workshop in one of the butsudan crafts. In autumn, they hold the Nanamagari Festa (七曲がりフェスタ) with butsudan craftsmen demonstrating their art and offering hands-on lessons for the public.

With the backing of the local daimyo, Hikone’s butsudan industry developed into an efficient production system and became one of Hikone’s major traditional industries. After World War II, Hikone butsudan makers established their own guild and product inspection system to improve and assure the quality of their products. Traditional butsudan are usually signed and dated by the maker or artisan.

Hikiyama

Nagahama Hikiyama festival float (Shojo-maru).

chidori

Hama-dan has a top-edge, bare wood transom and inner roof with three triangular chidori-hafu. The roof’s center is similar to the roof of Nagahama Hikiyama Festival floats.

Meanwhile, Hama-dan Buddhist altars have kind of a confusing history since there was the original Izumi-dan (和泉壇) which has since been grouped together with Hama-dan. Technically, Izumi-dan and Hama-dan have separate lineages and both still exist, but I’m told Izumi-dan is quite rare now due to its high price range and it has since been commonly called Hama-dan. Izumi-dan has a unique kind of sculpture or style that a butsudan expert can distinguish from a Hama-dan. Izumi-dan is named after a prominent Nagahama carpenter and woodcarver named Fujioka Izumi (藤岡 和泉 1617–1705) who specialized in carving lotuses and clouds. He gained fame after creating highly-rated woodcarvings for Izumi Shrine in Nagahama. He made butsudan as well.

Izumi favored making butsudan with less gold leaf and more bare wood than Hikone butsudan and Kyoto butsudan. For example, the wood-carved transom (sama) on the altar’s top edge is bare wood and not gold like on Hikone butsudan. He used zelkova (an expensive and durable wood) for the transom and hinoki cypress for the cabinet and included much maki-e lacquer art.

Another distinctive feature is the Hama-dan’s inner altar roof. It looks a like castle roof with multiple ridges and decorative triangular gables called chidori-hafu (千鳥破風). They make the butsudan look very dignified.

Izumi’s descendants/associates also made the first hikiyama floats for the Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri in the 18th century when kabuki became popular. The design of the hikiyama floats was modeled after the Izumi-dan Buddhist altars. In the photos above, you can how the roof design of the hikiyama float and butsudan are similar. Hikone butsudan has a different type of inner roof.

The Fujioka family helped to build and maintain the ornate Nagahama hikiyama floats. However today, the Fujioka family is no longer in this business and the floats are maintained by butsudan craftsmen.

Despite the different designs of Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan, both types can be configured to suit any Japanese Buddhist sect. Although the Jodo Shinshu Sect favors gold butsudan (like Hikone/Kyoto butsudan), a Jodo Shinshu family can still use a Hama-dan instead. I’m told that most Jodo Shinshu families in Nagahama and Maibara have a Hama-dan. (The butsudan in my home in Shiga is a Hama-dan as well.) Hama-dan is also reputed to be bigger than Hikone butsudan. Although I’m sure a (rich) customer can custom order a Hikone butsudan in any large size. I’m told that Hikone butsudan has a nationwide market base, while Hama-dan customers are mainly limited to northern Shiga.

Even though they are neighbors, it’s nice that Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan have retained their unique characteristics all these centuries. They also share some of the craftsmen who make butsudan parts for both Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan.

Mori Tesso in his workshop.

Mori Tesso in his workshop.

Mori Tesso and a dragon.

Mori Tesso and a dragon.

In September 2015, we visited one such craftsman, a very accomplished and versatile 70-year-old woodcarver (and painter) named Mori Tesso (森 哲荘) who lives and works in Kami-nyu (上丹生) in the city of Maibara. Out of the seven traditional butsudan craftsmen, I was most interested in the woodcarvers. After all, they make the Buddha statues that become the focal point of the butsudan. An online search led me to Mori Tesso at Mori Chokokusho (森彫刻所), a modest woodcarving studio next to his house. He has been a woodcarver in Kami-nyu for 55 years since age 15, right after junior high school. I got an exclusive interview and tour of their studio.

Kami-nyu is a small, rural enclave of butsudan craftsmen in a quiet, mountainous neighborhood in the Samegai area (on the way to the trout farm). There are cabinet makers, woodcarvers, gold leaf gilders, lacquer painters, etc. To have all these traditional craftsman in one place is quite rare in Japan. They make butsudan parts for both Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan, although such work has decreased dramatically.

Kami-nyu’s history goes back to the Tempyo Period (729–749) when a clan related to the Imperial Court lived in this area. Through their connections, they were exposed to cultural information and techniques from Korea and China. Kami-nyu thereby developed as a center of highly refined culture. In the early 19th century, two Kami-nyu teenage lads, 14-year-old Ueda Yusuke (上田勇助), who was the son of a shrine/temple carpenter, and friend Kawaguchi Shichiemon (川口七右衛門), spent 12 years in Kyoto to learn traditional woodcarving. When Yusuke came back to Kami-nyu, he worked as a woodcarver for local temples. Since the area was mountainous with little farmland, people in Kami-nyu made a living cutting trees and making woodcarvings for temples, shrines, and festival floats.

In the late 19th century (mid-Meiji Period), Yusuke’s son and successor (Yusuke II) ventured to make woodcarvings for Hama-dan, further refining his skills. Other butsudan craftsmen from different disciplines also started to settle in Kami-nyu. Kami-nyu thereby transformed from a woodcarvers’ neighborhood into a traditional crafts village that continues today. It’s a family business or cottage industry and most everything is handmade. They work separately, but as a team. There are no large, mass production factories. (Yusuke’s current descendants are no longer woodcarvers.)

Kami-nyu has a few butsudan shops (仏壇店) where you can custom order a butsudan to suit your budget and preferences. Many customers have their traditional butsudan custom-made. The shop will then mobilize and coordinate the traditional craftsmen in Kami-nyu to make the butsudan parts to be assembled by the shop.

Although the Kami-nyu craftsmen’s mainstay used to be making butsudan parts, their numbers have sadly shrunk dramatically due to a lack of work. The surviving ones now do mostly other work, any type of job that matches their skills (and fees). It could be a transom in a new house, restoration or repair work for temples, shrines, large altars, butsudan, kami-dana, and festival floats. They are highly versatile craftsmen.

Mori Tesso shows a drawing of a carving to be made for a roof part.

Mori Tesso shows a drawing of a carving to be made for a roof part.

Mori Tesso is a second-generation Kami-nyu woodcarver taking after his late father Hideo (秀男) who started the family trade. He was pretty much forced into the profession by his father who insisted that there were skills that can only be acquired at a young age. Tesso originally did not care so much for woodcarving and wanted to continue on to high school instead. However, after learning the craft from his father and older brother Nozomu, Tesso came to love woodcarving and feels fortunate to have pursued it. Look at his works and you will see that he is very good.

Hideo, born in 1900, apprenticed under a butsudan woodcarver in Kyoto after elementary school. He eventually became a master woodcarver. The post-war years were tough for him as people were too poor to buy butsudan. Old butsudan were often sold to feed the family.

As Japan recovered and people could afford to buy butsudan again, Hideo worked in Kyoto and trained many apprentices including his elder son Nozomu who started in 1951 after junior high school. Nozomu has been carving for over 60 years and lives in Kami-nyu.

Buddha

Butsudan Buddha statue carved by Mori Hideo.

Unfortunately, Hideo died at age 64, only three years after Tesso started carving. Tesso was quite saddened by his father’s passing and started dabbling in drawing and painting. But after getting married in 1973, he buckled down and pursued butsudan woodcarving seriously for a steady income. It takes at least 10 years to master the craft, and another 10 years to become a more versatile woodcarver.

He soon had two sons, Yasuichiro (靖一郎) and Tetsuo (徹雄), both of whom became woodcarvers themselves. Yasuichiro started training under his father and Uncle Nozomu at age 20 after graduating from a junior art college. Younger son Tetsuo apprenticed under his Uncle Nozomu as a woodcarver after high school. Both Yasuichiro and Tetsuo have been been carving for over 20 years now, so both are already master woodcarvers. Like his father, Yasuichiro has been certified by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry as a Traditional Craftsman for Hikone butsudan (彦根仏壇伝統工芸士). (There is no such certification for Hama-dan.) The two sons were not home during our visit so I didn’t get to meet them.

chisels

Mori Tesso and some of his many chisels.

The Moris live along the river flowing through Kami-nyu and Samegai. Their immediate neighbor is another craftsman and there is also butsudan shop right nearby. Their woodcarving studio is in a separate building next to their home. The studio is a fairly spacious room for three woodcarvers to work. They all face a window so they can look outside once in a while. Tesso carves while sitting at a low table which is actually a thick plank of wood. He sits on the floor, but his legs stretch out into a sunken pit. He has many little drawers for an arsenal of many different chisels. Kami-nyu is a quiet and relaxing place to do intricate work.

He showed us a variety of wood sculptures. He sketches the carving on the wood or paper, then makes a rough carving with a hammer and chisel. The final stages are fine carving. If there is a human face, he carves it last, as it is the most difficult part to carve. They don’t use sandpaper, etc., to smooth the surface either. It’s all smoothed with a chisel. This skill itself takes a few years to master.

Besides butsudan carvings, the Moris carve sculptures for shrines and temples (roof beams, transoms, etc.), wooden signboards for businesses, wooden picture frames, and festival floats. They can basically carve whatever the customer wants. They also repair butsudan sculptures. They do have ready-made sculptures for sale, but it seems that they mainly produce custom orders.

Tesso is a very, very versatile artist. He can carve all kinds of things. Just look at their website gallery for samples of their work. They also sell their work online via Yahoo Japan. An incredible variety. The Mori family also carved part of the impressive woodcarving mural displayed at Maibara Station’s east entrance. The mural shows Maibara’s major sights like Mt. Ibuki (top center) and Mishima Pond carved in wood.

Mural at Maibara Station by Kami-nyu woodcarvers.

Mural at Maibara Station by Kami-nyu woodcarvers.

After showing us his workshop, he brought us into his home where we saw a large Hama-dan in his Buddhist altar room (top photo). He made the butsudan with all the woodcarvings except for the Buddha statue that was carved by his father. Tesso told me that one customer saw this butsudan and immediately decided that he wanted one exactly like it. So Tesso had one made exactly like it. The cost? Ten million yen (!).

Indeed, high-end (i.e. large size and ornate), traditional butsudan can cost more than the top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz luxury car (S-Class). On the other hand, there are also simplified and compact butsudan called “modern butsudan” (モダン仏壇) which cost a lot less than traditional butsudan. Modern butsudan are basically wooden cabinets sans woodcarvings and major artwork. Average size models (about 60 cm high) can cost around ¥150,000 or more, but when you throw in the standard implements (rice offering holders, candle holders, bell, etc.) and Buddha figure or scroll, it can total around ¥300,000 or more. Modern butsudan are geared for city dwellers and condos where space is limited.

Also, there is a lot of imported butsudan (or parts) from countries like China and Vietnam where labor is much cheaper than in Japan. Imported butsudan started to spread in Japan from the 1990s. They now account for about 70 percent of the butsudan sold in Japan.

Tesso tells me that these imported butsudan pose the biggest challenge or competition to the traditional craftsmen. Sadly, the number of traditional butsudan craftsmen has decreased significantly and the Moris no longer carve for butsudan that much. He says that they have been adapting and adjusting to such market conditions. Traditional craftsmen in Japan are now basically relegated to the high-end market. They are also supported by purists who still favor “Made in Japan” butsudan and other crafts, citing subtle differences in the artwork of imported models. For example, dragon sculptures on imported butsudan may look too “Chinese.” Some butsudan shops proudly indicate that their butsudan are “Made in Japan.” Otherwise, normal people cannot tell if it is imported or not.

Modern

Even modern butsudan are quite diverse. These are 50-60 cm tall.

During a quick tour of butsudan shops in Tokyo, I was surprised to see so many modern and imported butsudan. Even though the modern ones are more suited for urban families and Western-style homes, it’s still sad to see how the traditional butsudan are being squeezed out. The lower prices of modern/imported butsudan are no doubt very tempting for the average worshipper.

People in the market for a butsudan have a very, very wide selection. Whether it’s traditional or modern, large or small, cheap or expensive, or plain or ornate. Unlike electrical appliances, cars, and furniture, there are no corporate brands of butsudan. There are only traditional regional brands and anonymous brands (modern or imported). Hikone butsudan and Hama-dan are no doubt among Japan’s elite butsudan that can last for generations.

Even if you’re not Buddhist/religious or have no plans to buy a butsudan, I hope this article makes you appreciate the fine artwork that goes into a traditional butsudan and piques your interest to try and identify any butsudan you might sooner or later see in Shiga.

*Special thanks to Mori Tesso for showing us his workplace and sculptures and to Yasuichiro for answering my supplemental questions.

Major references for this article:

Otsu-e paintings then and now

Otsu-e of an ogre at Miidera temple, Otsu.

Anyone who visits Otsu will sooner or later see an Otsu-e painting (大津絵). It can be a picture of an ogre (oni), wisteria maiden (Fuji-musume), Buddhist figure, or other surreal or whimsical human, god, or animal.

Otsu-e paintings originated as a folk art around 1624-44 and were made and sold by roadside stands in Oiwake near Otsu-juku, the last post town on the Tokaido and Nakasendo Roads before people arrived in Kyoto from Tokyo (Edo).

The earliest Otsu-e pictures during 1624-44 depicted mainly Buddhist images. People worshipped these images as an affordable alternative for expensive Buddha statues. Otsu-e paintings were unsigned by anonymous artists and initially served practical and religious functions. They did not start out as paintings for artistic appreciation. Otsu-e was cheap ephemera (as much as a bowl of noodles), not meant to last very long.

There are a few theories as to how Otsu-e came about. One theory says that an artist named Matabei started painting Otsu-e. A more plausible theory is that Buddhist painters who lost their jobs in Kyoto due to a realignment of Buddhist sects moved to Oiwake and started painting Otsu-e Buddhist images to eke out a living.

Otsu-e at Enryakuji temple

Otsu-e at Enryakuji temple.

By the early 18th century, Otsu-e became popular as cheap, local souvenirs and were no longer just for religious purposes. The paintings expanded to include ogre (oni), wisteria maidens, courtesans, gods (of Good Fortune), samurai warriors, falconers, birds, animals like monkeys, sumo wrestlers, and whatever the customer wanted.

Otsu-e were created on demand as the traveling customer waited. They were not ready-made. It took only several minutes to make Otsu-e.

Many Otsu-e were produced as a family business. The husband might create the basic outline in black, the wife colorized it, and their child added more details. They usually used woodblocks for the basic image, then painted it. The paintings were kept simple to make it easier and faster to make. Alas, Otsu-e has never received as much artistic acclaim in the art world as with works by individual artists (i.e. ukiyoe woodblock prints).

From the mid-18th century, most Otsu-e paintings depicted satirical scenes reflecting the contemporary times and moralistic or poetic paintings with writings. Proverbs like “don’t drink too much” still applies today. The most popular were still the ogre (oni) and wisteria maiden.

The oni (ogre or goblin) is shown wearing Buddhist priest robes, an umbrella on his back, a gong around his neck, and a mallet in his right hand. His left hand holds a list of temple donors (奉加帳). One of his two horns is also always bent. The oni is walking around soliciting donations. It expresses the notion that a priest without truth has the heart of an oni (devil or evil thing). It reminds priests and people to be honest.

By the late 19th century when trains became the main mode of transportation, roadside Otsu-e artists went out of business. They became extinct, but remnants of their existence have remained. Authentic Otsu-e are highly collectible and only some examples from the 17th-18th centuries remain today.

Otsu-e artist Tanaka Kokei.

Otsu-e artist Tanaka Kokei.

Tanaka Kokei.

Tanaka Kokei showing two Otsu-e folding screens fitted together.

gallery

Other works in Kokei-an gallery.

In the modern age, Otsu-e has been resurrected by a number of practitioners. I recently met two of the most established Otsu-e artists. Both have created their own approaches and versions of Otsu-e, although purists might not accept either of them as a traditional Otsu-e artist who sold paintings anonymously for cheap.

One of them is Otsu-e artist Tanaka Kokei (田中胡径) based in western Otsu. She gave me an exclusive interview at her gallery named Otsu-e no Yakata Kokei-an (大津絵の館 胡径庵) in July 2014. She was kind enough to bring out a whole bunch of heavy folding screens to show me, in addition to what was displayed in her gallery.

Her work is beautiful, but very high end, apparently targeting well-heeled collectors. They are not ephemera and do not come cheap. Especially when they are presented on exquisite folding screens, scrolls, or frames which are works of art in themselves. She even showed one folding screen with a washi paper backing made by the late washi artist Abe Eishiro (安部栄四郎) who was a Living National Treasure. So the picture mounting adds to the cost. Definitely not for the masses nor for the ordinary passing tourist on a budget.

But her works are outstanding. She works with her daughter Yumi in an interesting arrangement. Kokei directs how the picture is drawn or composed, but it’s Yumi who actually paints the picture and does the calligraphy. Like an art director and art technician working together. Although their Otsu-e are not signed, they can be easily identified by the innovative and unique mounting on folding screens, scrolls, and frames.

They are meticulous in all aspects of making and presenting Otsu-e. They diligently reproduce authentic Otsu-e colors by using authentic pigments, methods, paper (handmade washi only), and other top-quality materials. Their pictures are designed to last and be appreciated for a long time. Even the folding screens for mounting the Otsu-e are intricately made by highly skilled artisans. Sometimes she even argues with the folding screen artisans over the design, etc.

Rather than making Otsu-e ephemera that people might just stuff in a closet or attic, Kokei wants her work to be treasured from generation to generation as a family heirloom. Make it important enough for the owner to give it the attention it deserves. And to give it a place in the home. She’s most satisfied when her Otsu-e ends up in a home of people who can appreciate it. She believes that unless Otsu-e are presented in a more permanent and impressive way, its artistic heritage might be lost. Longevity and preservation seem to be her keywords. A far cry from 17th-century artists whose paintings were simply rolled up for carrying and used for a short time. Kokei sensei has taken Otsu-e to a much higher level.

I also asked if Kokei sensei accepts custom orders, painting according to the customer’s specifications. Although the customer may have some requests, Kokei usually ends up convincing the customer that her proposal would work better based on where the Otsu-e would be placed in the home.

Kokei is originally from Kyoto. Her family ran a picture frame/mounting business. Her father also repaired art works. Sometimes he would restore old Otsu-e. Visiting customers bringing Otsu-e would talk to her father while Kokei, still in jr. high school, would bring tea for the customer. That’s when she first saw Otsu-e. Her first impression of Otsu-e was that it was grungy, dirty, and manga-like.

After getting married and moving to Otsu, she again saw Otsu-e and was appalled by how different or untraditional modern Otsu-e was compared to traditional Otsu-e. She didn’t think the modern Otsu-e was doing the traditional art justice. Around 1984 while in her 30s, she started seriously studying Otsu-e. She wanted to know what the authentic Otsu-e was, the definitive form of Otsu-e. She studied under a number of Otsu-e teachers and eventually decided to create or resurrect Otsu-e herself.

Kokei asked her daughter Yumi to paint Otsu-e while Kokei would handle the mounting. Yumi, who was a certified art curator, said yes and quit her job at an art museum and studied how to paint Otsu-e. Evidently, she’s very good at it after about 10 years. She even does the haphazard-looking calligraphy.

When they first started out, they were prepared for a frugal life on a frugal income. Similar to when early Otsu-e painters started in the 17th century. Kokei was also brought up by a frugal family which she says was a blessing. Her family was dedicated to preserving traditional culture and Kokei and daughter Yumi are continuing this family mission.

Kokei-an

Entrance to Kokei-an gallery.

In 1994, she opened her Otsu-e no Yakata Kokei-an gallery in a quiet residential neighborhood in Shimo-Sakamoto in western Otsu. The gallery shows several tens of her pictures mounted on scrolls, in glass frames, on folding screens, etc. As of this writing, she has no website, so she might be obscure to the layman and foreigners. She has exhibited at department stores, but she’s not into mass marketing. You either know about her or you don’t.

To visit her gallery (or purchase her paintings), call to make an appointment (English not spoken). The gallery is somewhat hard to find and there is limited parking. Best to call and get directions. The closest station is Anoo Station on the Keihan Line. Map here.

Address: 2-19-20 Shimo-Sakamoto, Otsu, Shiga (〒520-0105 滋賀県大津市下阪本2丁目19-20)
Phone: (077) 579-8517

*Kokei sensei is holding an exhibition of her Otsu-e at Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine’s Hiyoshi Kaikan hall during Nov. 20–28, 2015 at 9:30 am to 4:00 pm.

Takahashi Shozan

Takahashi Shozan (Shinsuke) at a Shiga crafts fair.

shozan2

Otsu-e by Takahashi Shozan.

Otsu-e by Takahashi Shozan. Notice his signature.

Otsu-e by Takahashi Shozan. Notice his signature/seal on the lower right of each work.

The other prominent, modern Otsu-e artist is Takahashi Shozan IV (高橋松山). His father Shozan III was also an Otsu-e artist under whom he apprenticed in the 1950s. His son Shinsuke is also an Otsu-e artist.

Unlike Kokei, Shozan is very much into mass marketing and I’ve come across his Otsu-e pictures a number of times at crafts fairs and souvenir shops in Shiga. He also has a website (partially in English) and an online shop.

His Otsu-e are available on high-end scrolls and driftwood as well as on cheaper media such as handkerchiefs, postcards, and stationary. They are nice and colorful and look traditional. He’s got all the popular Otsu-e designs such as ogres, wisteria maidens, courtesans, etc. They make for a nice decoration or gift. If you cannot afford his pricey Otsu-e paintings, you can always buy something cheap like a postcard. All his works are signed by him. They are not anonymous like the original Otsu-e were.

This is understandable in this day and age. I always believe that credit should be given or claimed where it’s due. But Otsu-e purists might say “no” and it might be disheartening, but any kind of tradition is always changing in some way.

Shozan has a shop in central Otsu. He also teaches Otsu-e classes.
Address: 3-38 Miidera-cho, Otsu, Shiga 滋賀県大津市三井寺町3-38
Phone: 077-524-5656. Also see my short video interview of Shozan.

It’s interesting to see how Otsu-e has evolved, reflecting the times, even today. In this modern age, we still have a good choice when it comes to Otsu-e, one of Shiga’s unique art forms.

*You can see original, centuries-old Otsu-e at the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan) in Tokyo which has a large collection of Otsu-e that was donated by an avid collector. They also published a comprehensive and well-illustrated bilingual book (Japanese and English, ISBN 978-4885919251) about Otsu-e. You might find the book in a public library in Shiga. The Japan Times also published an article about the museum’s Otsu-e exhibition in 2005. The Otsu City Museum of History also has a few Otsu-e.

 

Omi Hino Shonin Furusato-kan

Omi Hino Shonin Furusato-kan

Omi Hino Shonin Furusato-kan entrance.

Last month in September 2015, I got a sneak peek and taste of a new Japanese dining experience that will start later this month on Oct. 20 at the Omi Hino Shonin Furusato-kan (近江日野商人ふるさと館) in Hino. This is the former grand residence of Hino merchant Yamanaka Shokichi (旧山中正吉邸) that has been restored to serve as a local museum and community center. It is right on the road leading to the entrance of Umamioka Watamuki Shrine.

Main house

Main house. Kami-dana Shinto altar on upper left.

Yamanaka Shokichi was a Hino merchant born in 1809. He became a sake brewer in Shizuoka Prefecture. By the 1920s, his family became one of Shizuoka’s most successful sake brewers.

Out of all the Hino merchant homes open to the public, this is one of the largest and grandest. It was purchased and restored by Hino Town (taking two years) and opened to the public on April 1, 2015. It preserves Hino’s historical and cultural artifacts and serves as a local information center. They are still installing panel displays and fixing up the place, but much of the home is open to the public. Hats off to everyone who helped with the restoration. An amazing job as far as I can tell.

The home is within a large 1,300 square-meter plot originally bestowed by the local Nishioji lord to the Yamanaka family. The home was built in the late 19th century. The floor plan of the main house follows the typical layout of a farmer’s house with four rooms shaped together in a square (四間取り). Later in the 1920s-30s, a “new” Japanese-style living/guest room, a Western-style room, and Western-style bath/shower were added to the main house. Quite a magnificent home, not to mention the intricate transoms.

Japanese-style room

Japanese-style room

Japanese-style room with garden view.

Japanese-style room with garden view. Where we had lunch.

The home’s largest room is the Japanese-style living room with 12 tatami mats. It is in the Sukiya shoin-zukuri style complete with a tokonoma (alcove) and superb view of the Japanese garden right outside the veranda. This was where we had a fabulous Japanese lunch (see photo). The room adjoins a 10-mat room so without the fusuma sliding doors, it becomes a spacious 22-mat room. And next to the 10-mat room is a 6-mat room. Very nice.

Lunch with locally grown vegetables. Dessert on the right was fig compote.

Lunch with locally grown vegetables (tempura, pickles, etc.). Maki-zushi had a flowery design. Chicken-ham had ume plum sauce. Dessert on the right was fig compote. For ¥1,500, a feast it was.

Our cooks.

Our cooks from the “Society for Continuing Traditional Cuisine.”

Our lunch was prepared by a group of local ladies calling themselves the “Society for Continuing Traditional Cuisine” (伝統料理を継続する会). They use locally grown vegetables and other ingredients made in Japan. They say that everything is “wholeheartedly handmade.” Yep, we could definitely see and taste it too. The food was served in 100+ year old lacquer bowls.

Reservations are required to have lunch here. Prices are affordable, starting at around ¥1,500. Would be an elegant place to have a luncheon or reception.

Garden

Garden outside the Japanese-style room.

Western-style room

Western-style room

Old kitchen

Old kitchen

The Omi Hino Shonin Furusato-kan is open from 9 am to 4 pm, closed on Mondays and Tuesdays (open if a national holiday), the day after a national holiday, and Dec. 29–Jan. 4.

The home is right on the road going to Umamioka Watamuki Shrine. From Omi-Hachiman Station or Hino Station, take the bus bound for Kitabatake-guchi (北畑口) and get off at the Mukaimachi (向町) bus stop. Or take a taxi from Hino Station. Parking is also available behind the home.

Address: 1264 Nishioji, Hino-cho, Gamou-gun, Shiga-ken 529-1628 (滋賀県蒲生郡日野町大字西大路1264番地)
Map | Photos
Phone: 0748-52-0008
Email: hinofurusatokan@dune.ocn.ne.jp
Web: http://www.town.shiga-hino.lg.jp/contents_detail.php?frmId=3018

*Special thanks to Austin Moore for arranging our visit to Hino.

Shiga Prefecture Videos

Organized index of my videos of Shiga Prefecture on YouTube. I currently have about 90 Shiga videos on my YouTube channel (photojpn). Mostly matsuri festivals. Links go directly to YouTube.

Videos by City and Town
Aisho-cho VideosHigashi-Omi Videos | Hikone Videos | Hino-cho Videos | Koka Videos | Konan Videos | Kora-cho Videos | Kusatsu Videos | Maibara Videos | Moriyama Videos | Nagahama Videos | Omi-Hachiman Videos | Otsu Videos | Ritto Videos | Ryuo-cho Videos | Taga-cho Videos | Takashima Videos | Toyosato-cho Videos | Yasu Videos

Latest and Most Popular Videos

‪Lake Biwa Rowing Song 琵琶湖周航の歌 英語版

Festivals in Shiga (Happy by Pharrell Williams)

All About Lake Biwa 琵琶湖博物館・固有種

We Love Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri! 長浜曳山祭

Otsu Matsuri Festival 大津祭 宵宮・本祭

Goshu Ondo Dance at Yokaichi Shotoku Matsuri 八日市聖徳まつり・江州音頭総おどり

Hikone Castle + Genkyuen + Festivals 彦根城+ひこにゃん+玄宮園+まつり

Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Festival 2013 東近江大凧まつり

Treasures of Konan, Shiga Prefecture 滋賀県湖南市の宝物

Omi Jingu Shrine Yabusame Horseback Archery 近江神宮流鏑馬神事

Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri Festival 長浜曳山祭り

Tsuchiyama Saio Princess Procession あいの土山斎王群行

Hiyoshi Taisha Sanno-sai Festival Part 1/2 山王祭

Hiyoshi Taisha Sanno-sai Festival Part 2/2 山王祭

Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada teaches the Goshu Ondo dance

Koka Ninja House, Shiga, Japan 甲賀流 忍術屋敷

Kita-Biwako Steam Locomotive train 北琵琶湖SL

 

Spring Festivals (Mar.–May)

Aburahi Matsuri Festival 2011 油日祭り・奴振り

Ayame Girls at Hyozu Matsuri 2010 兵主祭 あやめ神輿

Hachiman Matsuri 2011 八幡まつり

Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Festival 2013 東近江大凧まつり

Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Museum + Wind Goddess 2013 東近江大凧会館+願い札貼り

‪Hino Matsuri Festival 2011, Shiga 日野祭

Hiyoshi Taisha Sanno-sai Festival Part 1/2 山王祭

Hiyoshi Taisha Sanno-sai Festival Part 2/2 山王祭

Hyozu Matsuri Festival 2010 兵主祭

Iba-no-saka-kudashi Matsuri Festival 2011 伊庭の坂下し祭

Kaizu Rikishi Matsuri Festival 海津力士まつり

Kawakami Matsuri Festival 川上まつり

Kenketo Matsuri Festival (Ryuo, Shiga ) ケンケト祭り

Kenketo Odori Dance in Tsuchiyama ケンケト踊り

Kusatsu Shukuba Festival, Shiga 草津宿場まつり

Matchlock guns at Azuchi Nobunaga Festival 安土信長まつり

Minakuchi Hikiyama Matsuri Festival 水口曳山祭

Misaki Shrine Fire Festival 御崎神社 火まつり

Nagahama Castle & Hokoen Park Cherry Blossoms 長浜城 豊公園

Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri Festival 長浜曳山祭り

Naginata Odori Festival 長刀踊り まつり

Namura Shrine Sekkusai Festival 2011 苗村神社 節句祭

Nyu Chawan Matsuri Festival 丹生 茶わん祭り

Omi-Hachiman Sagicho Festival 近江八幡 左義長まつり

Omi-Hachiman Sagicho Matsuri Climax 近江八幡 左義長まつり

Omizo Matsuri Festival 2010 大溝祭

Sakata Shinmeigu Yakko-buri Procession in Maibara 坂田神明宮の蹴り奴振り

Shichikawa Matsuri Festival 2010 七川祭

Sushi-Cutting Matsuri Festival すし切りまつり

Taga Matsuri Festival 多賀まつり

Tsuchiyama Saio Princess Procession あいの土山斎王群行

Yokaichi Giant Kite Festival 2004 八日市大凧まつり

Kite crashing at Yokaichi Giant Kite Festival 2007 八日市大凧まつり

Yokaichi Giant Kite Festival 2008 八日市大凧祭り

Yuge Fire Festival at Kobiyoshi Shrine 弓削の火祭り

 

Summer Festivals (June–Aug.)

Biwako Otsu Summer Festival 2006 琵琶湖 大津夏まつり

Goshu Ondo Dance at Yokaichi Shotoku Matsuri 八日市聖徳まつり・江州音頭総おどり

Hino Torch Festival 日野町 火振りまつり

Omi Jingu Shrine Yabusame Horseback Archery 近江神宮流鏑馬神事

Taga Taisha Lantern Festival 多賀大社万燈祭

Taga Taisha Rice-Planting Festival 多賀大社 御田植祭

Takebe Taisha Senko-sai Festival 建部大社 船幸祭

‪Yuki Saiden Rice-Planting Festival, Shiga, Japan 悠紀斎田 お田植えまつり

 

Fall Festivals (Sept.–Nov.)

1st Yuru-Kyara (Mascot Character) Matsuri Festival ゆるキャラまつり

Hikone Castle + Genkyuen + Fall Festivals 彦根城+ひこにゃん+玄宮園+まつり

Hinade Shrine Sumo Odori Dance 日撫神社 奉納角力・角力おどり

‪Ibuki-yama Taiko Odori Drum Dance 2010 伊吹山奉納太鼓踊り

Maihara Hikiyama Matsuri Festival 2010 米原曳山まつり

Suijo Taiko Odori Dance Part 1/2 春照八幡神社 太鼓おどり

Suijo Taiko Odori Dance Part 2/2 春照八幡神社 太鼓おどり

Otsu Matsuri Festival 大津祭 宵宮・本祭

 

Winter Festivals (Dec.-Feb.)

Katsube Shrine Fire Festival 2013 勝部神社の火まつり

‪New Year’s Day at Taga Taisha Shrine 2014 多賀大社初詣

Shrine maidens dancing at Taga Taisha

Taga Taisha Setsubun Festival 多賀大社 節分祭

 

‪Music Videos

‪Biwako Aika 琵琶湖哀歌

Biwako Shuko no Uta at Oguchi Taro Monument in Okaya, Nagano

Biwako Shuko no Uta monument in Okaya, Nagano

Biwako Shuko no Uta with Yoshibue Reed Flutes よし笛「琵琶湖周航の歌」

‪Lake Biwa Rowing Song 琵琶湖周航の歌 英語版

Lake Biwa Rowing Song children’s choir rehearsal

Yoshibue Day Concert 「よし笛の日」定期演奏会

 

‪Shiga/Omi Brand

All About Lake Biwa 琵琶湖博物館・固有種

Koka Ninja House, Shiga, Japan 甲賀流 忍術屋敷

‪Shiga Prefecture Food and Crafts Fair, Tokyo 第26回 琵琶湖夢街道大近江展

Treasures of Konan, Shiga Prefecture 滋賀県湖南市の宝物

Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada teaches the Goshu Ondo dance

Kita-Biwako Steam Locomotive train 北琵琶湖SL

 

‪Sports in Shiga

‪2011 FISA World Rowing Tour at Lake Biwa, Japan

3rd Imazu Regatta 今津レガッタ

Imazu Jr. High School Rowing Club on Lake Biwa 今津中学校ボート部 琵琶湖周航

Maibara Basho Sumo Exhibition Tournament 2008 大相撲 米原場所

Zensuiji showing hidden Buddha

Flyer for Gokaicho.

Flyer for Gokaicho.

Zensuiji is one of the three Tendai Buddhist temples (called Konan Sanzan 湖南三山) in Konan, Shiga Prefecture designated as a National Treasure. The elegant lines of the thatched roof, Japanese gardens, and colorful autumn leaves make Zensuiji one of Shiga’s most aesthetic and popular temples.

Its main object of worship (Honzon 本尊) is Yakushi Nyorai Ruriko Nyorai (薬師瑠璃光如来), the Buddha of Medicine and Healing. It is a statue of a seated Buddha normally hidden from view in the Hondo main temple hall built in 1366.

However, for the first time in 14 years, this main statue will be exposed for public viewing from April 19 to June 14, 2015 to celebrate Zensuiji’s 1300th anniversary of its founding. The main statue is 102-cm high and an Important Cultural Property. The statue was last opened to the public in the temple in 2001 and 1949. This event of showing a hidden Buddha (hibutsu 秘仏) is called Gokaicho (御開帳).

The main statue was also displayed to the public in 2005 and 2006 at the Kyoto National Museum and Tokyo National Museum for a Buddhist art exhibition marking the 1200th anniversary of Tendai’s founding. It was the first and last time the main statue was displayed outside the temple. A photo of the seated main statue is here and pictured in the flyer above.

Formally named Iwane-san Io-in Zensuiji (岩根山王院善水寺), Zensuiji was founded by Empress Genmei during 708-715 as a dojo (small hall) to pray for the protection of Japan. According to legend, in the early Heian Period (794-1185), Priest Saicho (founder of Tendai Buddhism based on Mt. Hiei) was in the Konan-Koka area to harvest wood to build a temple on Mt. Hiei (Enryakuji). A ray of light led him to the dojo temple. He found a paper mulberry leaf floating on the temple’s Momotsute Pond (百伝の池) written with the words, “Excellent medicine, now left here” (是好良薬 今留在此). A 5.5 cm high gold Yakushi Buddha statue then appeared from the pond. Saicho prayed to this Buddha for seven days for rain. His prayers then came true as heavy rains fell and continued all day and night. The gushing river helped him transport the wood he found to Lake Biwa to build his temple on Mt. Hiei.

Later when Emperor Kanmu (737–806) fell ill, Saicho prayed for his recovery by dedicating some water from Momotsute Pond. He then offered the sacred water to the emperor who soon got well. The temple was then named “Zensuiji,” meaning “Efficacious Water Temple.” People come here to pray for good health and to recover from illness. You can also drink or take home the Efficacious Water from Momotsute Pond flowing from a spring.

When the hidden Yakushi Nyorai statue was repaired in 1906, they found a lot of rice husks and a document dated 993 inside the Buddha. The document, called Kechien Kyomyo (結縁交名), listed the people (donors) who contributed to making the Buddha statue as a way to connect with the Buddha.

If you miss seeing the main statue after it becomes “hidden”again after June 14, you can still see 30 other impressive Buddhist statues in the main temple hall. Fifteen of them are Important Cultural Properties dated to be centuries or a thousand years old. Off the beaten path and well worth visiting.

Zensuiji is also soliciting donations to rethatch its 40-year-old roof this year.

Hours: 9 am–5 pm (enter by 4:30 pm)

Admission: ¥700 for adults, ¥300 for jr. and high schoolers, free for elementary school kids

Directions: At Kosei Station’s North Exit (Kitaguchi), take the Meguru-kun bus that stops at Iwane (岩根). Buses leave once an hour, taking about 12 min. Bus schedule here. From the Iwane bus stop, there is a pleasant hillside trail going up to Zensuiji, taking about 15 min. If you’re traveling with a friend or small group, you can take a taxi. Map here.

Address: 3518 Iwane, Konan, Shiga Prefecture (〒520-3252 滋賀県湖南市岩根3518)

Website: zensuiji.jp

Zensuiji photos | Zensuiji video

*Thanks to Yukiyo Mitaka in Konan for contributing to this post.
*The city of Konan, Zensuiji temple, and the Konan Tourist Association have permission to reprint parts of this post in their free English materials for foreign visitors.

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