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:

Redevelopment of Nagahama Station area

Mondecool, Nagahama Station, wedding hall.

L-R: Mondecool, JR Nagahama Station, and wedding hall.

Ever since the new Nagahama Station building was completed in Oct. 2006, the station and immediate area have undergone a remarkable redevelopment that is still ongoing. This dramatic transformation must be Shiga’s biggest urban construction project since the redevelopment of the Hama-Otsu area in the 1980s-90s.

As I now see the old Nagahama Heiwado store (built in 1969) being torn down to make way for a new multi-purpose complex, I can’t help but to have mixed feelings. Although I look forward to what will be constructed in its place, I mourn the loss of yet another childhood icon. When I visited Shiga as a kid during summer vacation, I distinctly remember that old Heiwado store in Nagahama, especially the arcade game center on the top floor where I spent an afternoon entertaining myself while waiting for relatives shopping. My uncle gave me a handful of coins and I spent it all on just about every game there was. That was fun. (Arcade games in Japan were more fun than what we had in Hawaii.) That top floor underwent many changes after that, finally ending up with Print Club machines, a few restaurants which were always empty, and a 100-yen shop. All that is now gone too.

Old Nagahama Heiwado being torn down in Jan. 2016.

Old Nagahama Heiwado being torn down in Jan. 2016.

Side view of Heiwado being torn down in Jan. 2016.

Side view of Heiwado being torn down in Jan. 2016.

Old Heiwado near Nagahama Station.

When the current Nagahama Station building was completed in 2006, it was marvelous. Modeled after the first Nagahama Station building dating from 1882, the station building was the best-looking one in Shiga in my opinion. A large stained glass mural of the Hikiyama Festival kabuki boys greets you as you go down the elevator to the street level. Very nice touch.

However, a large wedding hall was constructed a few years ago on the site of the old station building right next to the new station building. Although the wedding hall has a similar design as the station building, its large size totally overshadows the new station. It spoils the visual impact of the small station building.

Then on February 10, 2015, on the southern end of the east side of the station, the new Heiwado store named “Mondecool Nagahama” (モンデクール長浜) opened to replace the old Heiwado which closed on Feb. 7, 2015. It’s pretty big, but only two stories high so it does not overwhelm the little station building. It looks more like an old aircraft hangar. It occupies what was once a parking lot, but no loss of parking spaces because Mondecool includes a parking structure in the back. Mondecool’s first floor is dominated by the Friend Mart supermarket, and the upper floor has a shop selling local gifts and other minor shops and eateries. The upper floor is also conveniently connected to Nagahama Station. Mondecool is a welcome addition to central Nagahama since we can all use it (unlike the wedding hall).

Mondecool connected to Nagahama Station on the second floor.

Mondecool connected to Nagahama Station on the second floor.

Second floor of Mondecool.

Second floor of Mondecool.

The name “Mondecool” has clever (or should I say “cool”) meanings. “Mon” means “gate” or “gateway” in reference to Nagahama Station being a gateway to northern Shiga (Kohoku). This gateway is to be full of vitality, hustle and bustle, and “cool” (as in “Cool Japan”). “Mondecool” also refers to a common local expression, “mondekuru” which means “I’ll return home” or “I’ll return to my hometown.” Looks like we can no longer say, “Let’s meet on the Heiwado side of Nagahama Station.” It’s now “Mondecool.”

Mondecool is not the department store that the old Heiwado was. They got smart and focused on money-making businesses, mainly food. The bedding, clothing, and other department store stuff are gone. They have been relegated to another Heiwado (AL Plaza) along the major highway (Route 8) about 1.5 km away.

Joyfull restaurant

Joyfull restaurant

Joyfull food

Joyfull’s complete meal (teishoku) for around ¥500.

Joyfull table

Joyfull table

For me, the nice surprise about Mondecool was the pleasant restaurant named “Joyfull” (yes, spelled with two l’s) on the first floor. It’s right next to Nagahama Station. I had lunch there in early Jan. 2016 and it was very good. The restaurant is new so the interior is nice. The staff was courteous, the menu and food were good, and the prices were surprisingly cheap. Cheaper than a family restaurant, and a great McDonald’s alternative for school kids. It was nice to see a good number of customers there, young and old. Usually, restaurants right in front of the train station are kind of expensive. Great place to hang out or to wait for a friend, train, or bus. Great for a quick bite when I don’t have time for Noppei udon noodles. Open 24 hours too. They should open a branch at Otsu Station.

New complex on old Heiwado site.

The new complex to be built on the old Heiwado site.

After the old Heiwado is torn down, they will build a low-rise complex of about 20 shops and restaurants and an event space. One structure will have two stories, and another will have five stories. They are wisely keeping it down to two stories to avoid obstructing views of Mt. Ibuki. The complex will also have a storehouse to store the Kasugayama float used in the Hikiyama Matsuri. The float will be moved from its current storehouse. I hope the storehouse will have windows for us to see the float. The second floor will have an outdoor terrace and an elevated walkway connected to Mondecool as you can see above. The name of the new complex is yet to be announced, but it is slated to open in April 2017.

After that, the northern end of the station on the east side (site of the old Nagahama Post Office) will also see redevelopment yet to be announced. Tentative plans indicate that it might be a hotel.

Kids in Nagahama and local babies to be born soon will have a spanking new Nagahama Station area to grow up with. I hope it will become one of their childhood icons full of sweet memories.

More photos of Nagahama Station area here.

Minpaku private home accommodations in Shiga

“Minpaku” (民泊) has become a buzzword in Japan since 2013. Minpaku are budget accommodations in private homes and condos, similar to bed and breakfasts except that they are not yet widely regulated in Japan. It could be a spare room in a house, a condo, or an entire house/condo for rent. Popular website Airbnb based in the U.S. is almost singlehandedly nurturing the minpaku business in Japan. Airbnb enables people to either rent out or find low-cost lodging. The minpaku phenomenon in Japan looked to be a game changer in the tourist industry until we saw at least one municipality in Tokyo starting to regulate them.

In places where there is no minpaku law, minpaku are technically illegal if money changes hands. (Not a problem if no money is made.) It is currently a strange, gray-zone situation in Japan with so many minpaku operating illegally (including in Shiga). But most minpaku operators are not getting arrested since local governments recognize the need and demand for minpaku and are taking steps to lay down the law for them. Even Shiga already has many minpaku registered at Airbnb, but I have not yet heard of any action being taken to regulate them. The national government is currently formulating minpaku regulations.

Minpaku has created problems among neighbors. Common complaints include minpaku guests not sorting garbage correctly, guests having loud parties, and too many different people coming and going in the neighborhood. There are also renters who evade taxes on minpaku income.

In Japan, to rent out a room for money, you are required to meet certain standards and be licensed according to the Ryokan-Hotel Business Law (旅館業法). After all, guests do want to make sure the accommodations meet safety and sanitation standards.

The Ryokan-Hotel Business Law has four stipulated business categories: hotels, ryokan, simple accommodations (pensions, minshuku, etc.), and boarding houses. They need to create a new category for “minpaku.” Or it can be included under “simple accommodations.”

In Ota Ward, Tokyo, they just instituted minpaku regulations from January 2016 to allow minpaku to operate legally. However, the idiotic caveat is that minpaku guests in Ota Ward must stay for a minimum of six nights. Most tourists do not stay longer than two or three nights in one location. Why do they have this ridiculous restriction? It’s due to opposition from the ryokan/hotel associations. This is a major damper and basically cancels out the practicality of having minpaku. It’s starting to look like that Japan really does not want minpaku. Such a restriction will only be another barrier for budget-minded foreign tourists and prevent the growth of a new business model/category. I hope that other local governments will not follow this example and allow short stays. When making these laws, why don’t they ask what tourists want? Hotels and ryokan offer a totally different kind of accommodations and should not hinder the growth of a new industry.

Airbnb has a good system. They have illustrated listings and a map of minpaku in Shiga. When choosing a minpaku, you want to make sure the accommodation is what you’re looking for and that the owner/renter is reputable. You can read reviews by people who stayed there and judge for yourself. Some minpaku have no reviews, and others have a few or more. I recommend choosing a reputable minpaku with good reviews. Also note that some minpaku listed at Airbnb are legitimate accommodations operating in accordance with the Ryokan-Hotel Business Law. Not all are illegal.

One thing Japan needs to do is to dispel its image of being an expensive place to visit or travel. Minpaku can be one way to achieve this.

Shiga History October–December 2015

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Omi Hino Shonin Furusato-kan.

Chronology of Shiga Prefecture’s most important and interesting news headlines for Oct.–Dec. 2015 (according to the year, month, day, and time posted at Japan time).

Originally posted on Twitter under Shiga Headlines by Philbert Ono. Twitter posts are limited to 140 characters including spaces and links (shortened by Twitter). Dates and times below are based on GMT instead of Japan time.

2015/10/7 11:30 Shiga had Japan’s highest percentage (48.4%) of respondents who submitted the 2015 national census survey online in September.
2015/10/14 8:31 New and elegant Japanese-style restaurant opening soon in Omi Hino Shonin Furusato-kan in Hino. http://t.co/5wiGXG7DLV
2015/10/16 9:40 Interviewed Otsu-e artist Tanaka Kokei http://t.co/HMi1jEEI7c
2015/10/18 2:22 Northern Biwako and Shiga from International Space Station! https://t.co/35PzhQX9zH
2015/10/23 16:27 Oct. 23: a man phoned Nagahama City Hall for a 12 pm bomb threat. Everyone evacuated by 11:30 am and returned safely to work at 12:30 pm.
2015/10/25 17:06 51-year-old Nagahama policeman 巡査部長伴由明 arrested for taking upskirt photos of a young woman in an anime goods shop in Osaka on Oct. 24.
2015/10/27 0:43 Matsumoto Castle in Nagano has a Koka ninja (and samurai) greeting visitors. https://t.co/GKb0eXwLJc
2015/11/5 15:52 For the 1st time, ruins of a building were found underwater in Lake Biwa, 100 m from Nagahama. Stone foundation and 18th-c. wooden pillars.
2015/11/6 12:04 In the past 5 years, at least 18 road signs in Shiga fell over due to age. 5 of them hurt a passing car/human. Shiga has 84,000 road signs.
2015/11/11 2:12 The “Ore, ore” (“It’s me”) scams in 2015 have defrauded 83 people in Shiga for a record ¥370 million+ as of Oct. 31.
2015/11/11 23:37 Rare find of Edo Period ruins in Lake Biwako https://t.co/uFgps8GDj6
2015/11/13 16:33 Replacing the old Heiwado on Nagahama Station’s east side will be a new multi-purpose low-rise complex w/shops, etc., opening in April 2017.
2015/11/17 17:35 Otsu Mayor Naomi Koshi announced that she will be seeking reelection. She faces 2 other independent candidates on election day next Jan. 17.
2015/11/18 8:16 Omi-Hachiman native & Living National Treasure, artist Shimura Fukumi 志村ふくみ received the Order of Culture on Nov. 3. https://t.co/tD4Jy1U8Cn
2015/11/20 2:33 40% of playground equipment in Shiga’s 600 parks are over 20 years old. In April, a girl was hurt riding a swing in Otsu that broke.
2015/11/24 9:23 Otsu-e artist Tanaka Kokei is having an exhibition at Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine’s Hiyoshi Kaikan 9:30 am–4 pm until Nov. 28. Impressive I heard!
2015/11/24 12:41 Saimyoji’s resident priest reported yesterday that a 50-cm sword was stolen from a Buddha statue’s hands inside the Hondo main hall in Kora.
2015/11/25 10:39 Due to this year’s fatal kite crash, the giant kite will not fly at the 2016 Higashi-Omi Giant Kite Festival if it is held.
2015/11/25 10:43 A giant, red Xmas boot has appeared on the west side of Kusatsu Station in front of Estopia Hotel. Till Dec. 25. https://t.co/4mOCv4bY5U
2015/12/4 10:40 Resigned: Shiga policeman in his 20s for stealing his dorm’s microwave and middle-age police staff for shoplifting at an Otsu supermarket.
2015/12/4 10:48 English version video by ANA showing nice drone shots of Shiga and some local food. https://t.co/xPVgc6WleI
2015/12/15 4:37 Falsified pile construction data has been found in 4 buildings (大津商業高校、長浜の看護専門学校、栗東の川辺県営住宅、草津増圧ポンプ場) built in the last 10 years in Shiga.
2015/12/15 4:42 Japan Pile Corp. (ジャパンパイル) & Nippon Concrete Industries (日本コンクリート工業) falsified the pile construction data for the 4 buildings in Shiga.
2015/12/15 4:52 Handa Kojun (半田孝淳), the Tendai Zasu Abbot in Enryakuji, died on Dec. 14 at age 98. He was the 1st Tendai head to visit Koya-san officially.
2015/12/15 5:00 An Oregon man returned a Japanese flag that belonged to a WWII soldier from HigashiOmi who died at age 21 in the Philippines in June 1945.
2015/12/17 21:51 Otsu Station building is slated to reopen in fall 2016 with a 60-bed capsule hotel targeting foreigners, restaurants, cafe, outdoor terrace.
2015/12/17 21:53 Hikone saw its first snow of the season on Dec. 17, 4 days later than usual and 11 days later than last year. Daytime temperature was 9.9ËšC.
2015/12/18 11:51 Snow dusted the Hira mountains today for the first time this season, 29 days later than usual and 16 days later than last year.
2015/12/23 10:59 Disappointed that Japan Traditional Crafts Aoyama Square in Tokyo displays & sells nothing from Shiga. https://t.co/KvTQJSRwqO
2015/12/27 13:06 都内に滋賀のアンテナショップがないこと、とてもがっかり。交通会館にある「ゆめぷらざ滋賀」もダメですね。お土産らしきのものが置いてない。信楽焼もない。。。

Shiga History July–Sept. 2015 | Chronological History of Shiga | Shiga History Jan.–April 2016

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.

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Other works in Kokei-an gallery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kokei-an

Entrance to Kokei-an gallery.

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

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

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

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

Takahashi Shozan

Takahashi Shozan (Shinsuke) at a Shiga crafts fair.

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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.

 

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