Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri 2017 Festival Schedule


Video link: https://youtu.be/3zYuarHUHXs

All 13 Nagahama hikiyama floats appearing in 2017! YOISA!!

Held annually on several days centering on April 15 by Nagahama Hachimangu ShrineNagahama Hikiyama Matsuri (長浜曳山祭) is a major float festival in Nagahama in northern Shiga Prefecture. The main highlight is child kabuki actors (boys age 5 to 12) performing on four ornate wooden floats. On Dec. 1, 2016 (JST), Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri was inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as one of the 33 “Yama, Hoko, and Yatai float festivals in Japan.” All festival events are within walking distance from JR Nagahama Station on the JR Hokuriku Line. Since there’s no detailed festival information and schedule in English from official sources, I provide this festival schedule in English based on official festival information and my recommendations. With a little knowledge of what’s what and what’s going on, I’m sure you’ll be able to enjoy this festival much more after reading this post.

There are 12 kabuki floats (called hikiyama) with a kabuki stage and one “guardian” float named Naginata-yama with no stage. Every year, only four of the kabuki floats perform kabuki at the festival. Three groups of four kabuki floats take turns appearing in the festival each year so each float group appears (performs kabuki) every three years. The same four floats appear together each time. Only the Naginata-yama guardian float appears in the festival every year, but does not perform kabuki.

To see all 12 kabuki floats, you normally would have to see the festival three years in a row. However, this year in 2017, to celebrate the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage designation, all 12 kabuki floats will make an appearance in the festival on April 15, the main festival day. But only four floats (Kasuga-zan, Kanko-zan, Gekkyuden, and Seikai-zan in 2017) will perform kabuki. The remaining eight non-performing kabuki floats will only be pulled to the Otabisho for display.

Although April 15 is the main festival day (called Honbi 本日), there is a slew of festival events and kabuki performances before and after this day. If you can’t make it to Nagahama on April 15, you can still see kabuki performances on April 13 (evening), 14 (morning), and 16 (all day).

In 2016, I photographed most of the festival events held during April 12–16. The video embedded above shows all the major festival events during this period. A few ceremonies and rituals are closed to the public.

Another thing to know is that the four kabuki-performing floats draw lots to determine the order of their performances. Being Float No. 1 is most desirable since they get to perform first on April 15 (main festival day) and can end early and go home early. They also have the honor to host the Sanbaso prayer dancer who performs before their kabuki play.

In 2017, Float No. 1 is Kanko-zan (諫皷山), Float No. 2 is Kasuga-zan (春日山), Float No. 3 is Gekkyuden (月宮殿), and Float No. 4 is Seikai-zan (青海山).

Here is the schedule of Nagahama Hikiyama Festival events in 2017 (times are approximate, and delays may occur). Also see the festival map toward the end of this post. The photos are screenshots from my video embedded above. Click on the photo to see the respective video segment.

April 1, 2017: Float Replacement Event (曳山交替式)
9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.: The hikiyama floats exhibited in the Nagahama Hikiyama Museum will be pulled out and taken back to their neighborhoods to prepare for the festival. Then the four floats appearing in next year’s festival will be brought into the museum to be displayed.

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April 9: Senko-ban Visitation (線香番)
Festival officials visit the four floats’ kabuki practice halls to watch a kabuki rehearsal and time the performance. Before clocks were invented, they used a burning incense stick (senko) to measure the kabuki play’s length. This is also when the parents see their sons perform for the first time. However, the actors do not wear the makeup and costumes yet. This ceremony is not open to the public since the practice hall will be filled with the boys’ parents and relatives.

April 9–12: Hadaka-mairi Shrine Worship (裸参り)
From 8:00 p.m. every night on these four days, scantily-clad young men (wakashu 若衆) from the four floats gather at their respective kabuki practice hall and parade to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine where they pray and purify themselves by running around a well and splashing themselves with the cold well water. They pray for a successful festival, healthy actors, and to draw a favorable lot on April 13 that determines the order of the floats’ performances. They all want to be Float No. 1 which performs first and goes home first on April 15 (main day).

From Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine, they march through Otemon-dori shopping arcade to Hokoku Shrine across town where they pray and splash in a well again. On their last worshipping day on April 12, Otemon-dori shopping arcade has festival musicians and representatives from non-performing floats (i.e. those not performing in the festival this year) to greet the wakashu men. They play festival music (called shagiri 囃子) and offer cups of sake (rice wine) to the wakashu leaders and Kujitori-nin. They shout “Yoisa! Yoisa!” the whole time and drink a lot of sake.

You will notice that they wear different colored headbands. The young man wearing a red headband is the Kujitori-nin (籤取り人) who will draw the lot at the lot-drawing ceremony on April 13. The men wearing a blue headband are the guards (警護) who direct the wakashu. The men with a white headband are the rank and file. When a float’s wakashu pass by another float’s wakashu, a scuffle may break out since they are rivals in drawing lots. Quite a spectacle at both shrines and in-between.

April 12: Portable Shrine Procession (Mikoshi togyo 神輿渡御)
From 6:30 pm, men carry a mikoshi portable shrine from Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine to the Otabisho rest place across town while shouting, “Yoisa!” They go through the Otemon-dori arcade and a few side streets. Along the way, festival musicians from other floats greet the portable shrine (no sake is served). Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri’s festival music is called shagiri (しゃぎり) instead of hayashi (囃子). The portable shrine was made in 1676 by Fujioka Kanbe’e (藤岡甚兵衛) with donations from shrine parishioners. The Fujioka family was a renown woodcarver and Buddhist altar maker in Nagahama.

The portable shrine brings the deity closer to the people and chases away evil spirits. They occasionally raise the portable shrine to wish happiness and safety to the people around it. The portable shrine arrives at the Otabisho at about 7:30 pm. The Otabisho is a rest place for the god traveling in a portable shrine. The portable shrine remains in the Otabisho until April 15 evening.

April 10–12: Public Kabuki Practice (公開稽古)
Only during these three days, each float’s kabuki practice hall is open to the public. You can watch the boys (mostly age 5 to 10) practice their kabuki play usually once in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The practice hall is typically a small community center in the float’s neighborhood. It has a large room with a makeshift kabuki stage in the same size as on the float. (For practice times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.)

Anybody can watch them practice without any reservation or admission fee, but they do not wear the kabuki makeup and costumes (no dress rehearsals). They have been practicing every day since March 20 (spring vacation), so by this time, they have mastered their roles quite well. They receive some fine-tuning during this time.

When you watch them practice so hard (sometimes they even break down and cry), you will come to appreciate how much work it takes to put on a kabuki play. You can also see what the boys really look like without the kabuki makeup. Then when you do see them in kabuki makeup (from April 13), you will be amazed at their transformation.

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Before the kabuki makeup and costumes…

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And after the kabuki makeup and costumes.

The kabuki play is directed by three instructors called San’yaku (三役): The choreographer, tayu narrator, and shamisen player. The choreographer casts the actors’ (yakusha) roles usually according to their physical attributes. The choreographer is usually an experienced kabuki actor and directs the actors’ movements and voice. The tayu narrates the story in a highly stylized manner like in kabuki. The shamisen player provides the only music played during the kabuki performance.

Since 1990, the Nagahama Hikiyama Cultural Association (長浜曳山文化協会) has been working to train local artists to become tayu narrators and shamisen players in the festival. In 2016, for the first time, all four floats had at least one locally-trained tayu narrator or shamisen player. Previously, they were all from outside Shiga.

Each performing float also publishes its own festival program booklet or brochure introducing the float and kabuki actors in Japanese. (If it has English, it’s usually not very good.) You can buy one for cheap at the practice hall.

*Tip: On April 12, you can see three different festival events: Kabuki practice during the day, the portable shrine procession from 6:30 pm, and the hadaka-mairi shrine worshippers from 8 pm.


April 13
The main events on this day are the lot-drawing ceremony and the first kabuki performances in full costume for the public held in the evening.

Taiko Drum Call (起し太鼓): Before dawn at all float neighborhoods, a small team walk around and beat a taiko drum as a wakeup call.

Sacred Staff Receiving Ceremony (御幣迎えの儀)
7:00 a.m.: Representatives (including the Sacred Staff Messenger age 5–7) from the four floats go to Nagahama Hachimangu to receive their sacred staff (zigzag paper streamers) to be mounted on their floats.

Lot-Drawing Ceremony (Kujitori-shiki 籤取り式の儀)
1:00 p.m.:
At Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine, four unmarried lads representing the four floats wear a red headband (like they did at the Hadaka-mairi) and sit in front of the shrine priest inside the worship hall. They are the lot drawers (Kujitori-nin).

Four pieces of paper are written with float numbers one to four. Each piece of paper is crumpled into a ball and placed on a tray as a lot to be drawn. There is a tray for each lot, and each lot drawer selects and carries back a tray. While sitting together, they all open their paper lots at the same time to see who is Float No. 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Being Float No. 1 is most desirable since they will perform first on April 15 and can go home early. They also get to host the Sanbaso prayer dancer which is the festival’s opening performance and prayer for an abundant harvest. The Lot-drawing ceremony is not for the public since the shrine’s worship hall is too small to allow the public inside to see the ceremony. However, you can see them from outside celebrating (throwing the lot drawer into the air, etc.).

April 13 Kabuki Performance (十三日番)
6:00 p.m. to around 8:30 p.m.: The four floats hold their first public kabuki performances in full makeup and costume in their respective neighborhoods. (For exact performance times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.)

In case of rain, the float will be covered with a tarp or moved to the shopping arcade for shelter.

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Sanbaso dancer (三番叟)

About the Sanbaso dancer
Float No. 1 receives the honor of hosting the Sanbaso dancer. The Sanbaso dances on Float No. 1 before the float’s kabuki play and he is the first performer on April 15 (main festival day) at the shrine. He holds a bell tree shaped like a ripe rice plant and performs prayer dances for a rich harvest.

The Sanbaso performs two short dance segments. The first segment is Momi-no-dan (stomping segment) where he waves his sleeves and stomps on the ground like he is preparing the ground for planting. He also does the “crow jump” (karasu-tobi) by jumping three consecutive times.

The second segment is Suzu-no-dan (bell segment) when the Sanbaso shakes his bell tree and mimes the planting and growing of rice. His costume has a crane design and his high cap has tiger stripes and a red sun on both sides.

The Sanbaso is a well-known dancer in Noh and kabuki. He comes from a Noh prayer dance called Okina (翁) dating from the 14th century as a religious ritual. Okina has three dancers praying for longevity, peace, endless joy, prosperity, and rich harvests. Sanbaso is the third dancer in Okina which is traditionally performed on auspicious and celebratory occasions like New Year’s and at the beginning of the day’s Noh or kabuki program. This is why he always appears first on the main festival day. The Sanbaso dances each time the float performs during the festival days. The boy playing the Sanbaso is recruited from the public in Nagahama and he is around age 10. He has his own choreographer, tayu narrator, and shamisen player. Ciick here to see the Sanbaso video clip.


April 14
The day before the main festival day is also a busy day. Lots to see/photograph.

Kabuki Performance in Local Neighborhoods (自町狂言)
9:00 a.m. to noon: Morning performances of kabuki plays are held by the four floats in their respective neighborhoods. The floats perform once or twice in the morning. For exact times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.

Floats Proceeding to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine (Noboriyama 登り山)
12 noon onward: After they finish their morning kabuki performances, the four floats proceed from their neighborhoods to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Float No. 4 arrives at the shrine first, followed by the others in reverse numerical order. All four floats arrive at the shrine by 4 p.m. It’s a spectacle to watch them pull the floats through the streets and the shopping arcade as they shout “Yoisa! Yoisa!” It’s a stop-and-go process. Meanwhile, the Naginata-yama float is pulled from its storehouse across town and arrives at the Otabisho rest place at 4 p.m. It is the only float that does not go to the shrine.

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About the Naginata-yama “Long Sword Float” (長刀山/小舟町組)
This is the only float with no kabuki stage, an Imperial-style carriage with only three wheels. Carries banners and long swords. A ceremonial and “festival guardian” float appearing every year on April 14-15 only at the Otabisho. It does not go to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Built in 1775 with Chinese lion sculptures on four sides. It’s a nice float, but does not attract the crowds. It’s a quiet float.

After the Sword Procession on April 15, red banners are hoisted on the float. Before Float No. 1 arrives at the Otabisho in the late afternoon, Naginata-yama’s red banners are replaced by white ones bearing the Minamoto Clan’s crest. The float’s caretaker is the Naginata-gumi association from the lakeside Kobuna-machi neighborhood (小舟町 now in Asahi-cho) where Minamoto Yoshiie landed for his victory march to Nagahama Hachimangu.

Evening Kabuki Procession (Yu-watari 夕渡り)
7:00 p.m.: Evening procession of all the child kabuki actors in full costume walking from Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine to Nagahama Hikiyama Museum through Otemon-dori shopping arcade. It starts with actors from Float No. 4, then No. 3, 2, and 1. Occasionally, the actor will stop and pose for photographers. Each actor is escorted by an adult relative (usually the father) holding a paper lantern and wooden placard indicating the actor’s name, age, and kabuki character. The procession includes festival musicians (no floats). A real crowd pleaser for locals and tourists alike.

All the kabuki actors (and stagehands) are treated like royalty during the festival. They receive gifts from relatives and friends and are very much pampered by their parents for undertaking such a difficult and rigorous task of kabuki acting. (A few of them even do it more than once.) The mothers have to make sure they don’t get sick or catch cold. This childhood experience stays with them for life and many of them come back to Nagahama to help out with the festival. In recent years, the floats have had difficulty recruiting kabuki actors (and musicians) since there are fewer kids in their neighborhoods.


April 15: Main festival day (Honbi 本日)
The festival’s peak day with kabuki performances here and there in central Nagahama from 9:45 am to 8:15 pm. The four floats start at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine where they perform in succession. Then they start moving toward the Otabisho and perform three more times at multiple locations (see map below). Before and after the kabuki performances, there are other processions and ceremonies. Note that the floats can be prone to be late (especially in the evening), so the time schedule is only approximate.

Before dawn: Taiko Drum Call (起し太鼓) at all float neighborhoods.

April 15 Events at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine
7:00 a.m.:
 Spring Festival Ceremony (春季大祭). A religious ceremony, not really for tourists.

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8:30 a.m.: Morning Kabuki Procession (Asa-watari 朝渡り) of child kabuki actors arrive at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Colorful procession, but too early in the morning for spectators.

9:10 a.m.: Sword Procession (Tachi-watari 太刀渡り) of sword bearers arrives at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine after going through Otemon-dori arcade. Led by a golden sacred staff, this procession reenacts the Hikiyama Matsuri’s original samurai procession before floats were added. Young men wear ceremonial aprons (similar to sumo wrestlers) and young boys wear samurai armor and a long naginata sword (2–3 meters long). They depict Minamoto no Yoshiie’s victory march to the shrine after he won the Gosannen War (1080s) in the Tohoku Region. Minamoto no Yoshiie was a famous samurai who founded Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine in 1069.

By the 16th century, Nagahama Hachimangu was ravaged by civil war, so Nagahama Castle Lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi moved and rebuilt the shrine at its present location further inland. He also used his own samurai retainers to restart the shrine’s annual festival procession dedicated to Minamoto no Yoshie.

The Sword Procession is conducted by the Naginata-gumi group which also pulls the Naginata-yama float. It has the Matajirohama beach (又次郎浜) where Minamoto no Yoshie landed for his victory march to the shrine.

After resting at the shrine for a short period, the Sword Procession goes to the Otabisho to mount their long swords on the Naginata-yama float.

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9:25 a.m.: Okina Maneki (翁招き) is an opening ritual held in front of Float No. 1 to mark the start of kabuki performances. A long bamboo pole attached with a wooden placard is waved to the shrine and to Float No. 1 as a signal to start the festival and the festival music begins. Float No. 1 is then moved into position for the first kabuki performance (opening with the Sanbaso dancer).

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9:45 a.m.–1:45 p.m.: Kabuki at the Shrine (Hono kyogen 奉納狂言) has the four floats perform kabuki at the shrine in succession starting with Float No. 1. These performances are dedicated to the shrine. Each play is about 40 min. long. After a float finishes a kabuki performance, it leaves the shrine and goes to the next performance location on the way to the Otabisho. The next float is then moved into position in the shrine to give its kabuki performance. So there is a break time between performances.

If you want to see all the kabuki plays on the four floats, one option is to stay at the shrine to see all of them. But it’s standing room only, so you may get tired standing for that long. There is paid seating, but they require advance tickets (costing a few thousand yen) sold in Feb. and usually sell out quickly. If you sit on the ground, you won’t be able to see the float since everyone is standing in front of you.

You can just watch one or two floats at the shrine, take a break, and watch the other floats at other locations and times. For kabuki performance times at the shrine and elsewhere, see the table below. All four floats will also perform at the Otabisho later in the afternoon and evening (also standing room only).

Each float has five to seven kabuki actors and one or two stagehands. There used to be more actors like 10 or more per float, but there are fewer kids now. It’s also quite expensive to rent the kabuki costumes. Since each kabuki float performs every three years, that’s how long they have to raise money for the festival.

Although watching the kabuki is impressive without even understanding it, you would enjoy it more if you knew the kabuki story. Most of the kabuki plays are well known and you may be able to find an English synopsis online if you know the kabuki play’s title in Japanese or English. Sometimes the kabuki play includes something about Nagahama.

*The order of the floats’ performances is decided on April 13 by the Kuji-tori ceremony (籤取り式の儀) where they draw lots to see which float is No. 1, 2, 3, or 4.

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Performing at Kanaya Park.

After performing at the shrine, each float will move across town mainly along Otemon-dori road (shopping arcade, Kurokabe Square, etc.) to the Otabisho rest place. Along the way, they will stop and perform kabuki three more times with the last performance at the Otabisho by Float No. 4 held from 7:35 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. The map below has a red line indicating the float route on April 15 and the kabuki performance spots (1 to 7) along the way. To enlarge the map, click here.

Float No./Location1. Hachimangu2. Shrine path3. Kanaya Park4. Hikiyama Museum5. Arcade intersection6. Kurokabe Square7. Otabisho
Float No. 19:45–10:30 am12:00–12:45 pm2:00–2:45 pm4:00–4:45 pm
Float No. 210:55–11:35 am1:10–1:50 pm3:10–3:50 pm5:15–5:55 pm
Float No. 312:00–12:40 pm1:50–2:30 pm4:05–4:45 pm6:25–7:05 pm
Float No. 41:05–1:45 pm3:05–3:45 pm5:15–5:55 pm7:35–8:15 pm
*Times are approximate. Location numbers correspond to the numbers in the map below.

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April 15 Otabisho Events
In 2017, to celebrate the festival’s designation as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, all 13 Nagahama Hikiyama floats will appear at the Otabisho by evening. The Otabisho (御旅所) is a small shrine building on a large parking lot near Hokoku Shrine (short walk from JR Nagahama Station). It is where the portable shrine rests during its journey away from Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine.

10 a.m. to 1 p.m.: The eight non-performing kabuki floats will arrive successively at the Otabisho parking lot to join the Naginata-yama guardian float (暇番山登り山). They will only be displayed and not perform any kabuki. It might be tricky to try and see these floats being pulled to the Otabisho while the four kabuki-performing floats are performing at the shrine and elsewhere at the same time. You won’t be able to see everything.

4:00–8:15 pm: Successive kabuki performances are held by the four floats as they arrive at the Otabisho one by one. Float No. 1 should arrive at 3:30 p.m. and start performing kabuki at 4 p.m. The last float (Float No. 4) is scheduled to finish its kabuki performance at 8:15 p.m. By 7:30 p.m. when Float No. 4 arrives, all 12 kabuki floats and the Naginata-yama guardian float will be on display at the Otabisho. A very rare occasion to see all the floats together. The last time they did this was in 2006 to celebrate the merger of Nagahama’s neighboring towns (Azai-cho and Biwa-cho). The kabuki actors are whisked home right after their performance. They don’t stick around for the latter events. They are exhausted and need to sleep and be ready for the next day.

9:00 p.m.: Portable Shrine Procession (Mikoshi togyo 神輿渡御)
After all the floats finish performing at the Otabisho, a short Shinto ceremony is held and the portable shrine that was brought to the Otabisho on April 12 is taken out and carried around the Otabisho a few times before it goes back to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. Note that it can get chilly this late in the evening, so dress warmly.

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9:30 p.m.: Returning Floats (戻り山)
The floats start to leave the Otabisho to return to their neighborhoods. Naginata-yama is always the first float to leave, followed by Float No. 1 and the other three floats in order. The last Float No. 4 might leave as late as 11 pm. The floats go back to their neighborhoods. In 2017, since there will be 13 floats, it might take longer for all the floats to leave.


April 16: After-Festival Kabuki (Goen kyogen 後宴狂言)
Morning (9:00 a.m.) to evening: Kabuki performances are given by the four floats in their respective neighborhoods in central Nagahama. They also perform on stage at the Nagahama Bunka Geijutsu Kaikan hall for a paying audience from 10:55 a.m. Each float’s final performance of the festival is called senshuraku (千秋楽). It starts between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. (For exact times and locations, see the official festival guide book in Japanese or ask the tourist information desk at Nagahama Station.) Expect to see some tearful kids and relieved parents after the last show is over.

April 17: Sacred-Staff Returning Ceremony (御幣返しの儀)
8:00 am: Representatives (including the Sacred Staff Messenger around age 5–7) from the four floats go to Nagahama Hachimangu to return their sacred staffs (zigzag paper streamers) that were mounted on their floats. Not much for tourists.


For more information about the Nagahama Hikiyama Festival in English, including the festival’s origins, history, and all the floats, watch my YouTube video (embedded above). I don’t mean to brag, but it’s the world’s most comprehensive video about the festival in English. Being 91 min. long, it’s a long video, but you’ll learn a lot and enjoy the festival a lot more by knowing more about it and knowing what to expect.

For festival details in Japanese, see or download the official festival guide book pdf.

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Festival information booth at the shrine.

Nagahama Kannon exhibition in Tokyo 2016

nagahamaHotoke2Another rare and magnificent exhibition of Kannon statues from Nagahama is being held in Tokyo at The University Art Museum (東京藝術大学美術館), Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai) from July 5 to Aug. 7, 2016 near Ueno Station. Kannon is also known as the Goddess of Mercy.

The exhibition is titled, Life and Prayer, Kannon Sculptures from Nagahama II (観音の里の祈りとくらし展 II-びわ湖・長浜のホトケたち). Organized by the Tokyo University of the Arts and the city of Nagahama, it is the followup to the first Nagahama Kannon exhibition held in 2014 at the same venue. This second Kannon exhibition has been greatly expanded with over 40 Kannon and Buddha statues from Nagahama, over twice the number shown in 2014.

I’ve never seen so many precious Kannon and Buddha statues in one place, except maybe at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. There are two rooms filled with really old Kannon and Buddha statues dating from centuries ago or even 1,000+ years ago. There is a great variety with large and small, seated and standing statues. It also includes Buddha statues, so it is not entirely a Kannon exhibition. An amazing collection. Many people from Shiga, especially Nagahama, are traveling to Tokyo to see this exhibition. Too bad you can’t see a similar exhibition in Shiga itself.

After you pay the ¥1,200 admission, they give you a nice plastic file folder with a Kannon statue design. It contains Nagahama tourist pamphlets in Japanese (no English).

Main exhibition room.

Main exhibition room.

Step into the exhibition room and you see long rows of Kannons and Buddhas along the walls with a few in the middle of the room. It feels like you’re joining a grand Nagahama Kannon Summit. I can imagine them talking (or chanting?) to each other after we humans leave. They must be congratulating each other on their longevity and good physical condition. If we could only hear all the wishes and prayers they have heard from worshippers over the centuries.

Second exhibition room.

Second exhibition room with the Den-Senju Kannon.

Seeing so many peaceful-looking Kannons and Buddhas with half-closed eyes and serene faces is really pacifying and relaxing. You don’t need to be Buddhist nor a Buddhist art expert to appreciate these masterpieces either. Even a non-expert can notice the fineness and subtleties of the facial expressions, form, and shape. Look closely, and you can see how the similar-looking faces actually look different. A face may even be grinning at you. There are also fierce-looking ones and unusual ones with “a thousand arms/legs” or a horse’s head on the head. I can’t imagine how many days it would take to see all these statues in their original temples in Nagahama. So it’s a bargain to see this exhibition, although I do hope to see some of them in their original habitat someday.

My favorites at the exhibition (page numbers refer to the exhibition catalog and links show the sculpture’s official photo):

Den-Senju Kannon (伝千手観音立像) from Kuroda Kannon-ji temple in Kinomoto. Important Cultural Property of Japan, dating back to the Heian Period (794–1185). This masterpiece is definitely the exhibition’s centerpiece. A larger-than-life, 11-headed, 1000-armed Kannon that dominates the second exhibition room. All those arms (actually only 18 instead of 1,000) have a hand holding something interesting, even a small snake. The crown on the head has eleven little kannon heads. The face is very serene, mustache and all. The back view is also impressive. Spent a good 10-15 min. staring at this piece. (p.74)

Senju-Senzoku Kannon (千手千足観音立像) from Shomyoji temple (正妙寺) in Takatsuki. Small standing statue only 42 cm high with a whopping 1,000 hands AND 1,000 legs, PLUS 9 Kannon heads on the crown! Somebody ordered this statue with everything on it. Golden statue from the Edo Period. Very rare to have both “1,000” arms and legs. Imagine what you could do with all those arms and legs. (p.56)

Eleven-headed Sitting Kannon (十一面観音坐像) from Okamoto Shrine in Odani. Serene-looking Kannon with four pairs of arms/hands from the Heian Period. What struck me was the beautiful wood grain pattern radiating from the tip of the nose like tree rings across the rest of the face. Very aesthetic. (p.51)

Horse Head (Bato) Kannon (馬頭観音立像) from Tokuenji temple (徳圓寺) in Nishi-Azai. This standing, black statue with three scowling faces, four pairs of arms/hands, and a horse’s head on top was most bizarre-looking, but somehow impressive. The Kannon’s hairdo streaks upward like a madman. Farmers pray to Horse Head Kannon to protect their farm animals and appease the spirits of dead ones. (p.115)

Tamonten (多聞天立像) from Shakudoji temple (石道寺) in Kinomoto. Tamonten is also known as Bishamonten, one of the Four Heavenly Kings. It’s a large, fierce-looking statue with big glass eyes and its mouth open to breath in. It looks so realistic that when I looked at his face, I could’ve sworn that his chest also expanded. He looks alive. I guess my eyes are trained to see an expanding chest whenever I see a face breathing in through the mouth. A brilliant optical illusion perhaps. Important Cultural Property of Japan. (p.92)

Nagahama temples

A few photos of Nagahama’s temple neighborhoods also displayed.

There are many more great pieces. I can highly recommend seeing this show. Each statue has a Japanese description showing the name of the statue, the name of the temple it belongs to, the date, and other basic info. There is no English. Having such a high-profile exhibition makes me worry about temple burglaries in Shiga where there are so many temples and treasures. I hope they have adequate security at these temples.

Shiga has Japan’s highest number of Kannon statues designated as Important Cultural Properties (including a National Treasure). There are over 130 Kannon statues in Nagahama. It is not known for certain why northern Nagahama has so many beautiful Kannon statues. One theory says that it may be largely due to Mt. Kodakami-yama (己高山, 923 m) in Kinomoto that could be seen far and wide and became an object of worship (山岳信仰). Kodakami-yama’s main temple was a Kannon temple. Written records show that there were many temples dedicated to Kodakami-yama, and Kannon statues were made for them.

The museum also sells a small exhibition catalog/book for ¥1,500. The catalog for the previous exhibition is also available. The museum gift shop also sells a bunch of books about Nagahama Kannon statues published by local publishers in Shiga. Nothing in English though (except this article).

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The lower floor has a room to view a short video about Nagahama’s Kannon. (もっと大きいなモニターが必要。)

The University Art Museum, Tokyo University of the Arts

The University Art Museum, Tokyo University of the Arts

Exhibition: Life and Prayer, Kannon Sculptures from Nagahama II (観音の里の祈りとくらし展 II-びわ湖・長浜のホトケたち)
When: July 5 to Aug. 7, 2016
Hours: 10 am–5 pm (till 8 pm on Fri.)
Closed: Mondays (open on July 18, and closed July 19)
Where: The University Art Museum (東京藝術大学美術館), Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai). The museum is a 10-min. walk from Ueno Station. Just walk through Ueno Park (map below). Tokyo University of the Arts (nicknamed Geidai) is one of Japan’s most venerated art universities.
Nearest station: JR Ueno Station (Koen Exit)
Admission: ¥1,200 for adults, ¥600 for high school and college students, and free for younger kids.
Phone: 03-5777-8600 (in Japanese only)
Website (in Japanese only): http://www.geidai.ac.jp/museum/exhibit/2016/nagahama2/nagahama2_ja.htm
Map link: https://goo.gl/maps/eua8Qo4572r

Biwako Nagahama Kannon House in Tokyo

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The city of Nagahama boldly opened a little museum in Ueno, Tokyo called “Biwako Nagahama Kannon House” (びわ湖長浜 KANNON HOUSE) on March 21, 2016. It exhibits one precious kannon Buddha statue (Goddess of Mercy) brought over from Nagahama, Shiga Prefecture. The exhibit changes every two months so Tokyoites can see six different kannon statues from Nagahama every year.

The museum is small, but nice. It has only one medium-size room divided into the kannon exhibition space and a mini theater showing a video about Nagahama. The small exhibition space is enclosed by a wooden, temple-like fence modeled after a Kannon-do (観音堂) or small kannon worship hall. The wood is hinoki cypress from Nagahama. At the center of the enclosure is a kannon statue in a glass case. You can see it up close and take pictures.

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Kannon statue from Sonju-in temple.

When I visited this month in June 2016, the kannon exhibit had just changed so I saw the second kannon statue to be exhibited at the museum. It was from Sonju-in temple (尊住院) in Nagahama’s Kawamichi-cho district. It is wooden, 53 cm tall, and very old, like from the 12th century (Heian Period). The first kannon statue they exhibited during March to May 2016 came from Hogonji temple on Chikubushima island in Lake Biwa.

The museum is staffed by two or three women at a small reception desk when you enter the door. They also have Nagahama tourist brochures.

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The museum was apparently inspired by the large turnout at the Nagahama kannon statue exhibition held at the University Art Museum (東京藝術大学美術館), Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai) from March 21 to April 13, 2014 when 18 kannon statues from Nagahama were displayed. It was impressive indeed. As a follow-up, they will hold another kannon exhibition at the same venue this year during July 5 to Aug. 7, 2016: Life and Prayer, Kannon Sculptures from Nagahama II (観音の里の祈りとくらし展 II-びわ湖・長浜のホトケたち). This time they will have a whopping 40 kannon statues on display. Not to be missed.

Biwako Nagahama Kannon House is near JR Ueno Station and Keisei Ueno Station. The museum is on the 1st floor in an office building on the fringe of Shinobazu Pond and Ueno Park. It’s close to the train/subway stations, but it’s on a back street of Ueno Park and you need to know where it is to find it. (See map below.)

Why did they decide to be near Shinobazu Pond? It’s because Shinobazu Pond has a Nagahama connection via the tiny Bentenjima island and the Benten-do temple dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten or Benten. When the renown Tendai Buddhist priest Tenkai (1536–1643) was out to build a mighty Tendai Buddhist temple headquarters called Kan’eiji in the Ueno area of Tokyo similar to Enryakuji in Shiga, he saw Shinobazu Pond as Lake Biwa and built a small island modeled after Chikubushima and built the Benten-do temple on it. The island today is connected to land so it doesn’t seem like an island, but the rebuilt Benten-do temple is there. Hogonji temple on Chikubushima island in Nagahama is dedicated to Benzaiten and one of Japan’s Big Three Benzaiten temples.

Look for the black square logo.

Look for the black square logo.

Shinobazu Pond is a popular tourist spot with cherry blossoms, lotus, Benten-do, monuments for kitchen knives and eyeglasses, and swan boats. But the Kannon House does not face Shinobazu Pond nor any major road, so it’s not very visible. Which means they can’t expect many off-the-street visitors. There’s nothing much next to the museum either, except for a small hotel.

A museum like this should be closer to another museum or major kannon temple (Asakusa would be good) for better synergy. Too bad it can’t be next to the Shitamachi Museum that faces Shinobazu Pond. The museum should also have more space for a tourist information office and/or Shiga gift shop. Right now, it’s basically a standalone facility. The upcoming kannon exhibition at Geidai might give it a publicity boost, but the museum is limited to showing only one kannon statue at a time.

Shiga has Japan’s highest number of Kannon statues designated as National Important Cultural Properties (including a National Treasure). There are over 130 Kannon statues in Nagahama. It is not known for certain why northern Nagahama has so many beautiful Kannon statues. One theory says that it may be largely due to Mt. Kodakami-yama (己高山, 923 m) in Kinomoto that could be seen far and wide and became an object of worship (山岳信仰). Kodakami-yama’s main temple was a Kannon temple. Written records show that there were many temples dedicated to Kodakami-yama, and Kannon statues were made for them.

Well, let’s see how it goes. I’ll try to visit whenever I’m in Ueno. Concept-wise, I think it’s great for a Shiga city to have a presence in Tokyo. But location and synergy are very important. I hope this is the first step toward having a more substantial space in Tokyo to showcase Shiga’s best things. An exhibition space showing arts and crafts, gift shop for food and crafts, eatery to taste funza-zushi, and tourist information desk, all in one, right on the main drag somewhere.

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Inconspicuous museum sign not at eye level.

Biwako Nagahama Kannon House

Hours: 10 am–6 pm
Closed: Mondays (open if a national holiday and closed on Tue. instead), Dec. 29–Jan. 3, and during exhibition changes
Admission: Free
Nearest station: JR Ueno Station (Shinobazu Exit) and Keisei Ueno Station

Address: Ueno-no-Mori First Building 1st floor, Ueno 2-14-27, Taito-ku, Tokyo
東京都台東区上野2丁目14番27号 上野の森ファーストビル1階
Phone: 03-6806-0103
Website (in Japanese only): http://www.nagahama-kannon-house.jp/

Map link: https://goo.gl/maps/tuSrFqYyLWQ2

Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri Festival Schedule

Updated: Click here for the 2017 Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri Festival Schedule.

The Nagahama Hikiyama Matsuri is a major float festival held in mid-April in Nagahama in northern Shiga Prefecture. The highlight is child kabuki actors performing on four ornate floats. On Dec. 1, 2016 (JST), it was inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as one of 33 “Yama, Hoko, and Yatai float festivals in Japan.” The festival is held near JR Nagahama Station on the JR Hokuriku Line.

Here is a schedule of major festival events in 2016 (times are approximate):

April 13
6:00 p.m. to around 8:30 p.m.: April 13 evening performance of child kabuki plays on four floats in their respective neighborhoods. This is their first public performance in full makeup and costume. In case of rain, certain floats might seek shelter inside the shopping arcade or in the Nagahama Hikiyama Museum’s extra storehouse for their performances. (十三日番)

April 14
10 a.m. to noon: Morning performance of child kabuki plays on four floats in their respective neighborhoods. (自町狂言)
Noon: The four floats are pulled (and pushed) from their neighborhoods to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine (Noboriyama 登り山).
4:00 p.m.: The Naginata float arrives at the Otabisho rest place.
7:00 p.m.: Evening procession of child kabuki actors walking from Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine to Nagahama Hikiyama Museum through Otemon-dori shopping arcade. (Yu-watari 夕渡り)

April 15 (Main day)
8:30 a.m.: Arrival of child kabuki actors at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. (Asa-watari 朝渡り)
9:20 a.m.: Arrival of sword bearers at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. (Tachi-watari 太刀渡り)
9:35 a.m.: Opening ritual to mark the start of kabuki performances. (Okina-maneki 翁招き)
9:55 a.m.–10:40 a.m.: Performance of a child kabuki play on the first of four floats at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine. 40 min. long. (Hono kyogen 奉納狂言)
11:10 a.m.–11:50 a.m.: Performance of child kabuki play on the second float at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine.
12:20 a.m.–1:00 p.m.: Performance of child kabuki play on the third float at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine.
1:30 p.m.–2:10 p.m.: Performance of child kabuki play on the fourth float at Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine.

*The order of the floats’ performances is decided on April 13 via the Kuji-tori ceremony (籤取り式の儀) where they draw lots to see which float is No. 1, 2, 3, or 4.

After performing at the shrine, each float will move across town along Otemon-dori road (shopping arcade, Kurokabe Square, etc.) to the Otabisho rest place. Along the way, they will stop and perform kabuki three more times with the last performance at the Otabisho starting at 7:40 p.m. Each float performs the same kabuki play each time.

9:30 p.m.: At the Otabisho rest place after all the floats finish performing, a short Shinto ceremony is held and the portable shrine in the Otabisho is taken out and carried back to Nagahama Hachimangu Shrine.

9:30 p.m.: The four floats start to leave the Otabisho to return to their neighborhoods.

April 16
Morning to evening: After-festival kabuki performances are given by the four floats once each in the morning, afternoon, and evening in their respective neighborhoods in central Nagahama. Each float’s final performance of the festival is called senshuraku (千秋楽). Expect to see some tearful kids and parents after the last show is over. (Goen kyogen 後宴狂言)

For details in Japanese, see or download this pdf file from the Nagahama Hikiyama Museum. Also see the map below or click on this map link.

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.

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Hikone butsudan and certified craftsman.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Nagahama Hikiyama festival float (Shojo-maru).

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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:

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