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.

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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.

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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.

 

Grave of Azai sister Go

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Tomb of Go and Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada.

Back in 2011, NHK TV broadcast its yearlong Taiga Drama called Go–Himetachi no Sengoku (江〜姫たちの戦国〜) which I translate as “Go–Noble Ladies of Feudal Japan.” This series made the main character nationally famous. She was Go (1573-1626), also called Ogo or Oeyo and Sugen’in in her final years.

She was the youngest of three sisters born to Azai Nagamasa (1545-1573), Lord of Odani Castle in northern Shiga (present-day Nagahama) and wife Oichi (1547?-1583) who was the younger sister of Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582). Born in Shiga’s Odani Castle, the three Azai sisters, called Azai sanshimai (浅井三姉妹), are perhaps Japan’s most famous or historical trio of sisters. Her oldest sister was Chacha, also known as Yodo, who at age 19 married Toyotomi Hideyoshi who was 51 and met a tragic end, and her other sister was Ohatsu who married Kyogoku Takatsugu.

Of the three sisters, Go became part of a lasting dynasty in Japanese history by marrying the second Tokugawa Shogun Hidetada (1579-1632) and giving birth to the third Tokugawa Shogun Iemitsu (1604-1651). We can say that most of the Tokugawa shoguns have roots in Shiga since Go was born in Odani, Shiga.

Zojoji temple in Tokyo.

Zojoji temple in Tokyo.

In late March 2015, I visited Zojoji temple (増上寺) in Tokyo when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. Zojoji is a Jodo-shu Buddhist temple that was the official temple of the Tokugawa shoguns. Six of the Tokugawa shoguns are buried at Zojoji, including Tokugawa Hidetada. His tomb includes Go’s ashes. They are interred together, evidence of how much Hidetada loved his wife Go.

From April 2, 2015, the Tokugawa graves became open to the public every day except on Tuesdays and Dec. 28-31. The graves were previously closed to the public. Hours are 10 am to 4 pm. You can also see the tombs of the 6th Tokugawa Shogun Ienobu (1662-1712), 7th Tokugawa (child) Shogun Ietsugu (1709-1716), 9th Tokugawa Shogun Ieshige (1712-1761), 12th Tokugawa Shogun Ieyoshi (1793-1853), and 14th Tokugawa Shogun Iemochi (1846-1866). Iemochi’s famous wife Princess Kazunomiya also has a tomb.

I paid the ¥500 admission and entered a small courtyard-like area with the tombs of the shoguns. Cherry trees accented the tombs nicely with Tokyo Tower towering in the background. Hidetada and Go’s tomb is in the right corner, below Tokyo Tower.

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Tombs of Tokugawa shoguns at Zojoji.

Tombs of Tokugawa shoguns at Zojoji.

Hidetada’s tomb was originally housed in a magnificent mausoleum structure with intricate carvings similar to the Toshogu shrine in Nikko where Ieyasu is interred. Sadly, this building was destroyed in May 1945 during the firebombing of World War II.

But the good news is that a high-precision scale model of the building, called the Taitokuin Mausoleum (台徳院殿霊廟), had been built in 1910 to be exhibited at the Japan-British Exhibition at White City, London, from May to October 1910. After the Exhibition, the model went to the Royal Collection and it has survived in the UK. In 2014, it was shipped to Zojoji to be restored and displayed to mark the 400th anniversary of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s death.

The model of Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada’s Taitokuin Mausoleum is now on display at Zojoji’s museum from April 2, 2015 (10 am – 4 pm, closed Tue., admission ¥700). The original structure was magnificent for sure, but this 1/10 scale model is also magnificent. A precious 3D record of what the structure looked like. This exhibit will be on indefinitely it seems. More info about the scale model here at the Royal Collection website. Also see the Zojoji site for photos of the exhibited model. More about Go here.

Path to the Tokugawa tombs.

Path to the Tokugawa tombs.

Yahei hot chili peppers in Konan

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Meet Yukiyo Mitaka and Yuzu Sasaki (三峰 教代・佐々木 由珠), a young and peppy pair of hot chili pepper farmers in Konan, Shiga Prefecture, Japan. Under their company name and brand of fm craic (not a radio station), they grow a unique and local variety of super-hot chili peppers called yahei togarashi (弥平とうがらし).

They plant, grow, harvest, process, package, and sell the yahei hot chili peppers as blended spices, sauces, and confections. They do everything by themselves. Just the two of them. They’ve also become media darlings, appearing in numerous Japanese print media and even on TV. And they now appear here at shiga-ken.com, in English. They also appear in my new video introducing the city of Konan:

Video link: http://youtu.be/OjFnVdKMCKI

On a sunny November day in 2014, they gave me an exclusive tour of Konan and their chili pepper field near the Shimoda area where the yahei chili peppers were originally grown. It looked like the size of a football field or bigger. They grow about 1,000 yahei chili pepper plants.

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fm craic’s yahei hot chili pepper field in Konan.

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Yahei chili peppers are orange.

Yahei chili peppers are bright orange.

The harvest season (summer to early fall) was already over, but they still had yahei togarashi plants with bright orange peppers. Most were shriveled and not marketable. All the plants were going to be uprooted and disposed of since they were single-season only. They plant new seedlings every March and harvest in the heat of summer which is tough work.

I couldn’t believe that only the two of them did all the work on this huge field. No help from family members or friends either. They grow and plant the seedlings, till and fertilize the soil, grow the plants, harvest the peppers by hand in summer, process them, and use spoons to carefully fill little spice bottles. Totally homegrown and handmade product. A lot of work, but they can take it easy during the off-season winter months.

The main thing about yahei chili peppers is that compared to ordinary chili pepper spices sold in Japan (like shichimi), their yahei chili pepper spices are super hot. On the tip of a wet chopstick, I tasted a tiny dash of both. The regular, blended shichimi was not even hot. But just a little powder of yahei caused an immediate burning sensation on my tongue. Really hot stuff.

The spicy heat of chili peppers is measured by the Scoville scale. Yahei chili pepper is measured as having 100,000 Scoville heat units which is twice as hot as ordinary chili peppers in Japan. The girls also profess that it’s not only about the spicy hotness. Yahei chili peppers also have umami flavor and a mellow aroma.

The origin of Konan’s yahei hot chili peppers remains unclear. “Yahei” supposed to be the name of the man from Konan’s Shimoda area who brought over yahei hot chili peppers from overseas (probably Korea) over 100 years ago. “Yahei” was also a name given to succeeding generations, so it is unknown exactly which Yahei brought over the chili peppers. However, it is known that the local folks in Shimoda started growing yahei togarashi in their backyards for their own consumption. The peppers were pickled or heated as appetizers for sake rice wine.

fm craic was the first to go commercial with yahei togarashi, billed as Konan’s native vegetable. This has instilled some local pride and the girls have gotten a number of local food businesses to use their yahei chili pepper spices. It’s a good synergy and collaboration because they can then promote each other’s products and businesses. The girls are determined to improve and promote their local area and products. I cannot help but to root for their success.

Upper Secret, popular cafe in Konan.

Upper Secret, popular cafe in Konan.

One local business which uses yahei hot chili peppers is an American-style cafe called Upper Secret, a short walk from JR Kosei Station on the JR Kusatsu Line. We had lunch there and had the award-winning Indian chicken curry that used yahei chili peppers. Very good. The cafe opened only two years ago in September 2012 and it has become a local favorite. Manager Akane Kaikiri also speaks English because she studied in Oklahoma (of all places).

Besides curry, they had a good selection of yummy-looking, homemade desserts, pastries, cookies, etc. They also sell fm craic’s yahei chili pepper spices and sauces. It’s a nice cafe and a great place for lunch or coffee/tea. Open: 9 am–5:30 pm, closed Tue. Website

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Upper Secret’s manager, Akane Kaikiri.

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Inside Upper Secret.

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Upper Secret’s Indian Chicken Curry using yahei chili peppers.

Yuzu and Yukiyo also manage Konan Marché (こなんマルシェ), a local gift shop selling local produce, food, crafts, and souvenirs. It’s like a Michi-no-eki (roadside rest area for drivers). Opened in autumn 2011 in a former convenience store, they sell a wide variety of local products. Besides yahei chili pepper spices, they have locally-grown vegetables like the unique Shimoda eggplant, rice, snacks and confections, local crafts like Shimoda-yaki pottery, and souvenirs designed with local mascots Ko-nyan (a cat) and Ishibe-don (a Tokaido Road traveler). “Ko-nyan” is a twist on “Konan” with “nyan” meaning “meow” in Japanese.

Konan Marché is open 10 am–7 pm, phone 0748-72-5275. (“Marché” is French for market.) The shop is in Mikumo, but will eventually move to a new location. Website

Konan Marché

Konan Marche

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fm craic’s chili pepper products.

fm craic sells four different blends of yahei hot chili pepper spices in small bottles for ¥630 each. It includes an all-purpose blend and one for curry. They also have two chili sauces, one sweet and one hot. Their products are nicknamed “Piriri” which means spicy hotness on your tongue. At Konan Marché, I bought and tried a few of the confections and snacks that used yahei chili peppers. Interesting how the hot chili taste comes afterward, like after you swallow. I liked their white brownies with small pieces of white chocolate and a dash of yahei chili pepper. It’s sweet at first, but there’s hot-chili aftertaste.

If you don’t have a car, the easiest place to buy yahei hot chili spices would be at Upper Secret near JR Kosei Station. They also sell at the Yurara Onsen hot spring facility near Zensuiji Temple. Or if you can read Japanese, order from their fm craic online store for shipping within Japan.

Upper Secret's booth at the 1st Geki-kara summit in Oct. 2014.

Upper Secret, winner of the 1st Geki-kara Summit.

Another impressive project was the “Yahei Gekikara (Super Spicy Hot) Summit” (弥平激辛サミット 2014) held for the first time on October 18, 2014. It was held together with the Ishibe-juku Matsuri Festival at the Ameyama Cultural Sports Park (Shukuba no Sato). They had food booths selling food using yahei hot chili peppers. It was a contest for the best spicy-hot food selected by popular vote and by a panel of food experts. The winner was Upper Secret’s Indian chicken curry dish. They received a cash prize and a free, year-long PR by the city of Konan. It has apparently replaced the previously held B-class gourmet event. I hope it becomes an annual event.

Shiga Governor Mikazuki at the fm craic booth at Shiga-Biwako Brand Fair at Osaka Station on Nov. 8-9, 2014.

Isn’t it amazing to see how far they’ve gone with some local chili peppers? Not strawberries, not grapes, but chili peppers of all things. Can you imagine?

Even their company name “fm craic” is intriguing for an agricultural company. “fm” refers to “farm” (as well as FM radio station) and “craic” is Irish meaning “fun and interesting.” So I guess they are “broadcasting” the “fun of farming.”

More young people (especially from the cities) are indeed getting interested in farming. If not as an occupation, at least as a temporary experience of getting down and dirty to plant rice, etc.

There’s a label for young farmers like Yuzu and Yukiyo. They call themselves “Noka Girls” (農家ガールズ) or Farm Gals which made me laugh. Shiga has a group of Noka Girls who keep in touch with other. They are all young women farmers. Definitely not the traditional image of old women farmers with bent-over backs.

Their background stories certainly is one reason for the media attention. A pair of young ladies quitting their unfulfilling jobs in the city, returning to their hometowns, and starting a business together. Something that all too many depopulating areas wish would happen more often.

Yuzu hails from Kusatsu. After graduating from a university in Kyoto, she studied the tea ceremony and Chinese language in Tianjin, China. She then worked for a travel agency in Osaka before moving back to Shiga.

Yukiyo is a native of Konan and studied in Boston, Massachusetts as an exchange student and also studied interpreting in the UK. So she speaks English well. She was working for a software firm in Tokyo before moving back to Shiga.

Both had a yearning to work in the food/farming business so they took a course in agriculture held by the Shiga Prefectural government. That’s where they met each other. Two inexperienced girls getting into the hard work of farming. They now have a lot to show for their hard work. It’s an interesting story for anybody. When they were starting out, veteran farmers in Konan were understandably skeptical of them. Like, “You gotta be kidding me.” But look at them now. They’ve come a long way in a few short years.

When you have the passion and the willingness to commit yourself, the wheels start to turn and things tend to fall into place. Shiga needs more people like them. Ambitious and determined folks out to improve their community. Konan is very lucky to have these two girls and it was a pleasure meeting them.

More about Konan | Map of Konan | Photos of Konan

*About the Konan video embedded above, it was my very first video introducing a city rather than just a single event or attraction. You can’t introduce everything about a city in a short video like this (about 10.5 min). So my strategy was to present some key words and images of Konan that people can remember.

The video also shows the indigo dyeing shop Konki Senshoku. The indigo dyeing master, Uenishi Tsuneo, helped us tie-dye a handkerchief when we visited in June 2011. I had an interesting talk with him and part of it is in the video. He speaks with a very rural and heavy Shiga dialect/accent. Since he talked like my late grandmother in Shiga, I could understand him. But he is rare one, I call him a “Living Treasure of Shiga.”

The video also shows a photo of Konan City Hall people showing drawings made by school kids in St. Johns, Michigan. Konan has friendship city relations with St. Johns. Every year since 20 years ago, artwork by elementary school kids in St. Johns are exhibited in Konan’s public library. And vice versa with artwork from Konan kids being displayed at Briggs Public Library in St. Johns. Website

Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada’s reelection prospects 2014

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Governor Yukiko Kada

Updated May 7, 2014

Update: Gov. Yukiko Kada announced on May 7, 2014 that she will not run for a third term as governor of Shiga Prefecture. She will instead support Mikazuki Taizo (三日月 大造) who plans to run.

There’s now only a 50-50 chance that Shiga Governor Yukiko Kada will seek reelection to a third term on July 13, 2014, election day. Despite her massive popularity among voters, it’s no longer a no-brainer decision for her to run.

We will have to wait until May 7, 2014 when she will announce whether or not she will run.

On April 29, 2014, the Yomiuri and Mainichi Shimbun newspapers reported that Governor Kada privately told her support group (対話でつなごう滋賀の会) that she would not seek reelection and was inclined to support the younger (age 42) and already-declared candidate Mikazuki Taizo (三日月 大造) from the Democratic Party of Japan. On her Facebook page, Governor Kada vehemently protested against these unconfirmed and speculative articles.

Of course, sensationalist, erroneous, or irresponsible reporting is nothing new. A fact of life for a politician and most kinds of celebrity and mysteries. If people don’t know what they want to know, they are apt to make things up or spread false or negative information or rumors. (Remember how the Tohoku disaster was sensationalized in the West and compelled the Japan Center for Michigan Universities in Hikone to needlessly evacuate their perfectly safe students back to the States?)

Governor Kada has been meeting with Mikazuki since March 2014 to coordinate their views on key policies such as nuclear power (which they both oppose), dams, and medical and social welfare. On April 26, 2014, they held a joint gathering chaired by former Shiga governor Takemura Masayoshi to evaluate Kada’s administration. Kada and Mikazuki voiced their policy views to clarify their similarities and differences.

They also announced that they would work toward a joint platform and establish a policy research group called “Team Shiga” (チームしが) on May 7, 2014. That’s when they will announce who will be their candidate for the gubernatorial election. Kada wants Mikazuki to agree to support the other if the other is the candidate. So if they decide Mikazuki should run, Kada will support him as her successor instead of running. And vice versa. If Kada decides to run, he should support her and not run. However, Mikazuki seems to be lukewarm toward this strategy. He has not clearly stated what he would do in case Kada decides to run. He will be with the governor on May 7 for the press conference and state his position after Kada states hers.

Both are worried about the prospect of the Liberal Democratic Party’s candidate winning the governorship which would further extend the dominance of the Liberal Democratic Party (which favors nuclear power) currently in power in Tokyo. Kada and Mikazuki want opposition parties to retain a voice. They are wisely joining forces upon the auspices of former Shiga governor Takemura Masayoshi (also a member of the Democratic Party of Japan) who brought them together.

Born in 1971 in Kyoto and raised mainly in Otsu, Mikazuki Taizo is a National Diet House of Representatives member representing Shiga’s No. 3 electoral district. He and the Democratic Party of Japan supported Kada in 2010 for her reelection.

Governor Yukiko Kada made history in 2006 as Shiga’s first woman governor after defeating the entrenched incumbent. She ran on the Mottainai (Wasteful) slogan referring to the exorbitant expenses slated for a new shinkansen station in Ritto and Daidogawa Dam in Otsu. She successfully saved us from wasting tax money on such boondoggle projects and was reelected in 2010 garnering a resounding 420,000 votes, the most ever for a Shiga governor and twice the number of her closest opponent. In 2006, she won with 217,842 votes.

However, since she did not belong to any of the major political parties, she had many political opponents in the prefectural assembly (legislature), especially from the Liberal Democratic Party who had pushed for the public works projects (her predecessor was from Ritto and belonged to the Liberal Democratic Party). The 2011 local elections finally brought her party and allies the majority in the prefectural assembly.

Ichiro Ozawa and Governor Kada’s political marriage lasted only a month.

However, in late Nov. 2012, a sensational misstep had Governor Kada form a new political party called Nippon Mirai no To (Tomorrow Party of Japan) with political kingpin Ozawa Ichiro. With the platform of abolishing nuclear power, they aimed to win many National Diet seats in the Dec. 2012 election and become a “third force” in national government. However, when Ozawa’s camp realized that Kada wouldn’t be their political puppet as the party head, they dumped her and split from the party to form a new one after only a month. Meanwhile, Kada got criticism from her opponents in Shiga for shifting her attention from Shiga to her new party.

Also, the Democratic Party of Japan, who had supported her reelection in 2010, became one of her opponent parties during her brief stint as head of the new party in late 2012. Therefore, they might not be inclined to support her again in the upcoming election in July 2014. This may be one factor behind any decision for her not to run. But most voters in Shiga view her temporary deviation as a hiccup and nothing major.

The fact is, Kada still remains very popular and admired in Shiga. Many of us affectionately call her “Kada-chan.” Mikazuki has his youth going for him, but will voters go for a relatively unknown figure compared to Kada? Then again, all the declared candidates so far are rather obscure. He may have some advantage if he receives Kada’s endorsement, but it may be an uphill battle since the Liberal Democratic Party is in power at the national level. On the other hand, Kada is a shoo-in to win. Take a chance on a not-so-popular Young Turk or stick with a super popular and proven vote getter? That is the question.

I wouldn’t call Facebook a barometer of one’s popularity, but I cannot ignore that Governor Kada has several thousand FB friends plus 3,600+ followers. Her posts elicit numerous likes and comments. Meanwhile, Mikazuki only has 493 likes on his FB page as of this writing. Also, at the gathering on April 26 and on Kada’s Facebook page, voters have expressed their opposition to Mikazuki’s candidacy and the Democratic Party of Japan. Kada will be touring Shiga during Golden Week and talking to people for their opinions. After “careful consideration,” she will make a decision and announce it after Golden Week on May 7.

I think part of Kada’s popularity is due to her down-to-earth and honest, sincere character. She’s not putting on an act (shibai). She’s very approachable and not intimidating. You can talk to her like you can talk to your grocer.

Looking forward to her announcement on May 7. (Fingers crossed.)

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