Bringing the Buddha home at Inoue Butsudan

Bringing the Buddha home at Inoue Butsudan

place Area: Hikone access_time Published: 2019.12.06

Largely unknown outside of Japan, a butsudan, literally a ‘Buddha stand’, is a miniature temple which the Buddhist faithful can have in their home, in front of which they can perform all of the rituals they would at an actual temple. Until the end of the last century, they were popular items of household furniture, something that everyone who could afford one desired as the focus of their family’s spiritual devotions.

Butsudan are typically large and very elaborate creations. Many are the size of a western wardrobe. Like a wardrobe, they’re made of wood, with doors that open in front. They’re lacquered, usually in black, and decorated with gold-plated fittings and carving coated with gold leaf. The shelves within are laden with numerous diecast appurtenances used in Buddhist ceremony. It’s not coincidental that the techniques and technologies for making butsudan are the same as those used for making Japanese armour.

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At the end of the Warring States period, Japan entered the long, peaceful centuries of the Edo period. Warriors stopped whacking each other about, and the regular demand for new suits of armour dried up. The armourers – the lacquerers and platers and die casters – needed something else to do, and butsudan was the answer. That’s why today’s remaining butsudan makers are typically found around castle towns like Hikone.

Inoue Butsudan is one of Hikone’s foremost butsudan shops, located on the street called Nanamagari, which means ‘seven bends’. The street leads to Hikone castle from the Nakasendō, one of Japan’s main thoroughfares since ancient times. But Japanese castle towns were built as an integral part of the castle’s defences, so the street has no less than seven acute bends to make it difficult for attackers to pass. Nanamagari is lined with the workshops of craftsmen who make the various parts that go into a butsudan. And Inoue Shōichi’s business is assembling and selling butsudan. His job is also to figure out where to take the craft at a time when the demand for butsudan is declining just as it did for armour.

I visited Inoue Butsudan to learn more and to have a go at gold-leafing, one of the central crafts of the business. The shop itself is a pristine new building in the Japanese traditional modern style, fitting in perfectly with its older surroundings. Entering through the door facing the street, I find myself in the butsudan accessories department where the candles, incense and brass bells are arrayed. Mrs. Inoue comes out smiling from behind the counter and bows a welcome. Shortly Mr. Inoue appears in his smart work clothes and takes me deeper into the shop to see the butsudan themselves.

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They’re truly extraordinary. The deeply lustrous acres of smooth lacquer on the sides contrast with the multiplicitous and intricate gold detail on the inside. The inside of the wardrobe is a simulacrum of a temple with steps, a balustrade, pillars, soffits, gables, and roof. Not forgetting, of course, an image of the Buddha.
“Butsudan differ according to Buddhist sect. Pure Land Buddhism has a standing Amida Nyorai Buddha, whereas Zen will have a seated Shaka Nyorai Buddha. The pillars of the various temples are also different for each sect.”
I notice that the gold inside the doors of two adjacent butsudan is different – the one on the left shows the grain of the wood underneath, whereas on the right, the gold is smooth and lustrous.
“The one on the left is gold powder and this one is gold leaf. To achieve this effect, you apply transparent lacquer to the wood and then brush on the gold powder taking care not to obscure the grain. This is more expensive than gold leaf, which is easier to apply”.
Inoue-san is pleasantly matter of fact about prices and the costs of each process. Every item on sale has a price tag, and not a few of the items are in the millions of yen.

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To address the declining popularity of butsudan, Inoue-san is wracking his brains on product development. One of his ideas is display stands for luxury watches. Automatic winders are incorporated into decorative frames that use the techniques of butsudan manufacture. They’re certainly prestigious looking products, but I wonder how well they’re selling.
“Not so well”, says Inoue-san with a wry laugh.
But there’s no need to worry yet. Hikone butsudan are one of three crafts registered as nationally recognized crafts of Shiga Prefecture, and as such, anyone wanting a butsudan is willing to come from far afield to buy one. Inoue-san reels off the prefectures where buyers come from, and it’s pretty broad. And for anyone in Japan who wants an old butsudan restored, Hikone is also the place.

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We go upstairs to have some fun with gold leaf. Visitors to Inoue Butsudan can try their hand at applying gold leaf to a copper mould of various animals mounted on a wooden board. The procedure is the same as that used for gold-leafing butsudan. You paint on some adhesive and then remove most of it. Then without breathing or disturbing the air in any way, you pick up the gold leaf with bamboo tongs and lay it on the workpiece.
Any abrupt movement will tear the micron-thin metal and the dull copper will show through. But that’s OK because you can fix it by applying some more gold.
Then you use a fine brush to push the gold into the detailed parts of the animal – its eyes and claws, and the fiddly little bits where the copper meets the wooden backing.
Completing this painstaking process is very satisfying, and the gilded animal is strikingly beautiful.

Inoue Butsudan was founded in 1901 and the current Inoue-san is the fourth generation.
“Did you ever consider another line of work?”
“When I was young, there was so much demand for butsudan that I never thought of anything else.” “You certainly know how to apply gold leaf. Are you master of all the crafts involved in making a butsudan?”
“All I can do is assemble a butsudan. But there are seven processes involved, and my job is to direct the several craftsmen to meet an order. So I have to understand enough to tell the craftsmen what to aim for. It takes about ten years of solid work to become a qualified craftsman.”

I find it interesting that each butsudan contains a Buddhist temple of its own.
“When you visit an actual temple, do you find yourself considering the quality of the workmanship – this is nicely done … this is poor work?”
“Actually, I get a lot of inspiration from real temples and shrines – the designs of carvings and so on. I often take photos and apply what I’ve learned in our butsudan.”
“Is there somewhere in Ōmi that you’d particularly recommend?”
“Hōgon-ji Temple on Chikubushima Island in Lake Biwa is a National Treasure. The carving there is really impressive. It’s currently undergoing restoration”

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As something that’s normally found in a home, butsudan is a rather private aspect of Japanese culture. Butsudan shops aren’t the sort of place that foreign visitors feel free to enter and look around. At Inoue Butsudan, visitors are met with a warm welcome and an invitation to explore this deep and fascinating subject.

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Get into a different bag in Fukuromachi

A typical walking tour of Hikone takes you from the station to the castle, then along Castle Road with its recently rebuilt Edo-style shops, through the mock-Taishō period Yonbanchō Square, to Ginzachō with its genuine Shōwa period arcade. At the end of the arcade, you enter Hanashōbu Street with its unmistakably old buildings, and if you take one of the alleys off to the right towards the Seri River, you’ll find yourself in Fukuromachi.

Fukuromachi is the old ‘licensed quarter’ of the castle town, where prostitutes and entertainers were allowed by the feudal government to ply their trade. These quarters were a feature of every castle town in Japan, allowing the otherwise rigidly controlled samurai to let off steam and relax a bit.

I visited Fukuromachi to talk to the proprietors of a couple of very different venues in the quarter. First I met Matsubara Tomiko who runs a selection of establishments in Fukuromachi including Club Hama, a hostess bar for members, Snack Kuro, a public bar, and the Sushimatsu restaurant. Out of hours, she was in her casual attire, but later in the evening, she would have been fully encased in smart kimono. We took one of the box seats in the huge sitting room of her club, among potted orchids that she received for her last birthday. There’s a piano and drum kit, and a projector. The furnishings and décor are of the highest quality and good taste.

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“‘Fukuromachi’ – ‘Bag town’, is a rather weird name. What’s its origin?”
“‘Fukuromachi isn’t its official name. It’s the old name of the area. This area is like a maze of cul-de-sacs, so it’s like a bag. In the old days, it was a licensed prostitution quarter. In modern times, the official name ‘Fukuromachi’ was abolished. When children went to school, it was considered insensitive if they were known as ‘kids from Fukuromachi’. But I think it’s a shame that the old name was phased out. When I was a child, this was still a red-light district. But the government decided to shut down all the brothels.”
“What sort of customers visit your establishment?”
“The first floor is a club, and our members are mostly the owners of companies in Hikone and hereabouts. The second floor is a bar that’s open to everyone. On the first floor we have a dress code, but in the second-floor bar, anything goes – work clothes, shorts and so on.”

At this point I was imagining a sort of linoleum and Formica setup, but when Matsubara-san took me upstairs to the second-floor establishment I was surprised to find a space whose elegance rivals the club below. Its décor features a bamboo theme, and there are beautiful carved transoms taken from the traditional building that used to stand on this site. In the upstairs bar you can enjoy beer, sake, wine and cocktails with various snack foods like fried chicken and chips, cheese, and sliced tomato. You can also order sushi from the nearby Sushimatsu restaurant.

“Do you serve local sake here?”
“Yes, we have a wide selection. Although our club members tend to drink wine, whiskey, and brandy, I really like sake. Customers at Sushimatsu tend to drink nihonshu.”
“Do you have a particular favourite brand of sake?”
“There are so many good local brands to choose from, so I like drinking a variety of types. At the moment, I’m enjoying the freshly pressed nigorizake of springtime. It’s slightly cloudy. It’s quite strong, but it’s delicious.”
“I haven’t had any nigorizake from Shiga yet.”
“Oh dear! We’ll have to fix that! Nigorizake isn’t one of your fancy modern types. It’s made using the simple old methods. You can enjoy sake as it used to taste in the old days.”
“Do you also serve warm sake.”
“Oh yes! I love it in winter.”

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The conversation turned to the old days when everyone drank sake.
“I used to enjoy exchanging glasses with my guests. That’s how we used to drink socially in the days before everyone became bothered by ‘hygiene’.”
Matsubara-san showed me a selection of the beautifully decorated ceramic bowls used for washing glasses between exchanges. She demonstrated how the glass is pressed against the bottom of the bowl and pulled up sharply, drawing water rapidly up into the glass.

According to Matsubara-san, there were two hundred geiko in the area, and four hundred prostitutes. So it was a very lively place.
“When I was a child, men would come into the area and they’d pick a girl they fancied, then they’d go and watch a film, or see the fireflies in summer, or play scoop-the-goldfish. Often, they’d invite me to join them. Then they’d have dinner together. It was actually very sociable.

Fukuromachi never slept. It was always as bright as day, but once you stepped out of the quarter it was pitch black at night and you needed a torch. Then about thirty-eight years ago, the Ginza shopping street was built, and people came from all over Japan in buses to see it. After that, Fukuromachi has been in decline, but the Fukuromachi Proprietors Association is working to restore the area’s popularity.”

One of these efforts includes the installation of lanterns featuring a beguiling and conspiratorial-looking lady in a kimono, on premises owned by Association members. The lanterns proclaim that the area is ‘safe’, which is another way of saying that there are no longer prostitutes here. The lady on the lantern is Murayama Taka, also known as Takajo. Born in nearby Taga, she became a geisha in Kyōto. She was the lover of Ii Naosuke, and she’s said to have taught the shamisen in Fukuromachi.

The quarter is a fascinating mix of architectural styles and frontages, many of which have been redone numerous times. Elegant geisha houses with red latticework fronts stand next to hole-in-the-wall snack bars. Later in the evening when things in the quarter were getting into stride, I met bar owner Toda Moritake, alias Kenny, who owns Tavern Takazono, an American-style bar. The side of his building has a big mural of Louis Armstrong blowing his horn, but the entrance is very small, and perhaps a little intimidating to first-time visitors. Toda-san, who wears distinctively American clothing and who has some of the atmosphere of Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid, is concerned about how to make the area more accessible to foreign visitors. The traditional seating charge of these unique Japanese entertainment districts isn’t something that can be easily done away with, but the challenge is how to make it acceptable to foreign guests.

“Kenny” explains that the cover charge includes a small dish of food, the right to sit at your stool without interruption all night, and a certain amount of entertainment, whether a pleasant chat with the owner or a hostess, or live music and impromptu dancing. The people who frequent Fukuromachi aren’t shy, retiring types. When someone plonks themselves down next to you, you can expect to be drawn into their circle with minimal formalities. Conversation flows, somehow or other. Kenny himself is talented at several instruments, and after a few cocktails or pints of Guinness, somehow it seems easy to get up and dance when he starts drumming to something evocative from the 1980s. He knows the classics of America, Europe, and Japan, going back forty years or more.

Besides the bars, there are restaurants offering Japanese and foreign cuisine, so you can dine most enjoyably in Fukuromachi before the night heats up. Whichever bag you end up in, a visit to toujours gai Fukuromachi is sure to become a cherished memory.

Hikone Castle

Hikone Castle stands on a hill in central Hikone. Originally it was almost entirely surrounded by the water of Lake Biwa, but today the subsidiary lakes have been filled in. A visit to the castle is a fascinating experience. The path climbs steeply through a variety of ingenious fortifications, from simple expedients like uneven steps, to a collapsible bridge. There are waterfowl in the moats, and woodland birds in the forest on the hillsides. From the flat hilltop, you can see all of Hikone city, the vast expanse of Lake Biwa, and the mountain ranges that surround Ōmi. Climb the vertiginous steps inside the keep, and you can look down on the castle defences, as well as the pretty traditional garden created for the enjoyment of the feudal lords. The views reflect the changing seasons, with white-capped mountains in winter, massed ranks of cherry blossoms in spring, and colourful foliage in autumn.

The History of Hikone Castle

Hikone Castle was built by the newly appointed lords of Hikone, the Ii family, in the first decades of the seventeenth century. The castle was constructed on the orders of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1534–1616), who wanted to prevent opposing daimyō from joining forces and threatening his newly created government. Hikone had great strategic significance, being situated on Lake Biwa and along the Nakasendō, one of two main roads that connected the capital of Edo (now Tokyo) to western Japan. Lake Biwa could be used to reach Kyoto by boat, and it was a fundamental part of the area’s transportation network. Furthermore, if a daimyō from the west moved to attack the shogunate at the capital, they would likely approach via the Nakasendō.

The castle was assigned to Ii Naomasa (1561–1602) in recognition of his performance in battle. Naomasa died soon after receiving the position, and his son Naotsugu (1590–1662), who succeeded him as daimyō, built most of the castle complex between 1604 and 1607. Naotsugu was replaced by his brother-in-law, Ii Naotaka (1590–1659), who completed the castle and the lord’s residence (omote goten) in 1622.

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Hikone Castle is one of the best-preserved castles in Japan, and a number of its buildings have been designated Important Cultural Properties. Many of its features are typical of the hilltop castles of Japan’s medieval period (twelfth to sixteenth centuries), while other aspects show the role of Japanese castles shifted during the seventeenth century from strongholds to centers of administration. For example, the stone foundations that surround the main enclosure (honmaru) strongly recall the hilltop castles of the Warring States period (1467–1568), but Hikone’s omote goten has chambers that were used for public meetings and administration, as well as a stroll garden and multiple tearooms for entertaining government officials.

Hikone Castle has several layers of fortifications. Its main keep was built on the flattened top of Mt. Hikone, at the center of several walled enclosures. The castle grounds were also once encircled by three concentric moats, of which the inner and middle moats still remain. Despite its defenses and strategically important position, Hikone Castle was never the site of armed conflict. After the shōgunate was overthrown in 1868, in 1873 the Meiji Emperor (1852–1912) issued an order to destroy the old castles as remnants of the Tokugawa regime. Hikone was scheduled for demolition as well, but the castle was saved when the emperor happened to visit the grounds. His councilor, Ōkuma Shigenobu (1838–1922), was struck by the beauty of the main keep and asked him to spare it for posterity. The emperor agreed.

Genkyūen and Rakurakuen Gardens

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Japanese gardens, like many aspects of traditional Japanese culture, were adopted and adapted from Chinese cultural influences. From the sixth to tenth centuries, Japan’s governmental structure was directly modeled after the Tang dynasty (618–907), and those who held high positions within this system often built Chinese-style gardens as a way of further emulating the prestigious culture of the Chinese court. In the centuries thereafter, Japanese gardens were built in a variety of motifs and styles, but the Chinese aesthetic endured as an indicator of wealth and class.

At the beginning of the Edo period (1603–1867), gardens served two purposes: as visual pieces that could be admired from within an attached or nearby tearoom, and as a place stroll, with a series of “views” that could be admired from several fixed points around the garden. Both of these functions were useful when entertaining guests, and stroll gardens (kaiyūshiki teien) became an almost mandatory fixture of the estates and residences of the daimyō. The gardens, which typically centered around a pond or other water feature, often contained miniaturized homages to famous sites and references to Taoist lore. The Genkyūen garden, for example, contains a number of elements drawn from Chinese legends, such as the central island, which represents Hōrai, the legendary Island of the Immortals.

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Genkyūen has existed in several forms throughout its centuries of history. The garden is believed to have been originally built in 1677 as part of the residence of Ii Naooki (1656–1717). At the time, the residence was called Keyaki Goten (“Zelkova Palace”), and the garden already had its characteristic central pond. In the early nineteenth century, a portion of the garden was annexed to create a separate garden by the daimyō Ii Naoaki (1794–1850). This annex was called Rakurakuen, written by repeating the Chinese character for “enjoyment,” as a nod to the fact that a visitor could enjoy both inner views of the pond and outer views of the nearby mountains. The “borrowed scenery” of distant mountains (or castles) in a garden—called shakkei—is a common element of Japanese and Chinese gardens.

Beginning in 1997, Genkyūen’s grounds underwent significant restoration on the basis of a painting of the garden that dates back to Rakurakuen’s creation in 1812.

Outer Moat

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Moats are a common feature of Japanese castles, for which they often served dual roles as both defensive structures and waterways for transportation. Hikone Castle’s three concentric moats were filled by a canal from nearby Lake Biwa. They were built as part of the castle construction and completed by 1622. In addition to providing the water for the moats, the channel between the castle town and the lake had numerous benefits for Hikone’s economy. It opened up direct access to the lake, which was already widely used for the transportation of goods or troops, and allowed the Ii lords to enter and leave the castle by boat.

Hikone Castle’s three moats divided the residents of the castle town into literal social circles: during the Edo period (1603–1867), a person’s position in the social hierarchy was indicated by how many moats separated them from the castle. The castle complex and lord’s residences lay within the inner moat (uchibori). The middle moat (nakabori) encircled official buildings, as well as the residences of the daimyō’s top retainers and samurai who occupied administrative posts. Merchants and tradesmen lived within the outer moat (sotobori), and lower-ranking samurai and foot soldiers lived beyond it.

Structures Within the Main Enclosure

Main Enclosure

The main enclosure, or honmaru, is the core of the castle complex. If Hikone had ever come under attack, it is here at the top of Mt. Hikone, protected by multiple stone walls and surrounded by three concentric moats, that defending forces would have made their last stand. The lord of Hikone Ii Naotaka (1590–1659) had a temporary residence here until his private residence (omote goten) was completed in 1622, and the honmaru also contained several towers. The castle’s main keep was saved from demolition during the Meiji era (1868–1912), but the other buildings were not. Their stone foundations can still be seen nearby.

Main Keep (Tenshu)

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The main enclosure is the site of the main keep, a panoramic vantage point from which to survey the castle’s surroundings that was often used to store arms and armour. This keep, completed in 1606, is believed to have been built using mostly materials from Ōtsu Castle, transported by boat from 45 kilometres away on the southwest side of Lake Biwa. Castles with impressive keeps, like those of Hikone, Himeji, and Ōsaka, were generally constructed during the Edo period (1603–1867), when the country was unified under the shōgun and large-scale military conflicts were rare. The castles of that time were designed both as fortifications and as symbols of the power of the daimyō who controlled them. Hikone’s keep, a National Treasure, reflects the wealth and stature of the Ii family.

Drum Gate Turret (Taiko-mon Yagura)

This turret is a guard station for the front entrance leading to the main enclosure. The turret contained a drum (taiko) that was used for communication within the castle complex.

Site of Arrival-Viewing Turret (Tsukimi Yagura)

The tsukimi yagura, a two-storey turret that stood on the highest ground of the castle complex, was demolished in 1868. From inside the tower, guards monitored the area to the northeast of the castle.

Three-storey Turret (Sanjū Yagura)

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From the top floor of the three-storey turret in the west enclosure, watchmen could observe traffic in the direction of Lake Biwa to the northwest, the access routes to the Yamazaki-guruwa enclosure to the north, or any activity at the back gates to the south and southeast. Looking straight down, they could surveil the dry moat below. The third-storey windows face in every direction to facilitate a wide view, but the second- and first-floor windows look only outward, away from the castle, to create a line of fire on attacking enemies. In order to withstand bullets from attacking arquebusiers and flaming arrows, the outward-facing walls of the turret are double-layered and thickly lacquered for fire-resistance. The three-storey turret was heavily repaired in 1853, and as much as 80 percent of the beams and columns were replaced.

Structures Within the Ninomaru

Ninomaru and Tamon Yagura

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The ninomaru is a section of the castle between the inner and middle moats that contains the stable. It also contains a tamon yagura, a long, fortified storehouse that faces the middle moat and protected the main gates. The two sides of this two-storey storehouse create a masugata, a rectangular space between the inner and outer gates where troops could gather out of sight of enemy forces. The masugata was also an important defensive feature: just inside the main gates, another set of gates was placed perpendicularly. By setting the gates at right angles, defenders forced attacking soldiers to turn and expose their sides while moving through the masugata. While passing through, attackers would have been vulnerable to attack from the rectangular arrow slits and triangular loopholes for rifles that line the inner walls.

The left side of the tamon yagura, originally constructed in 1622, was destroyed by fire in 1767 and rebuilt between 1769 and 1771. The right side was rebuilt with concrete in 1960.


This stable outside the Omotemon Gate housed as many as 21 horses belonging to the lord of Hikone. The horses were kept ready for the daimyō and his guests, though another, smaller stable was located near the daimyō’s residence (omote goten). Even into the Edo period (1603–1867), when Japan was no longer embroiled in widespread military conflict, horsemanship was considered an essential skill for daimyō and samurai. Notably, this is the only extant stable in Japan that is situated within a castle’s walls.

Ōhorikiri and Tenbin Yagura

Large Dry Moat (Ōhorikiri)

The ōhorikiri is a massive trench that separates the embankments of the Bell Bailey (Kanenomaru) and Drum Bailey (Taikomaru). The trench is spanned by an otoshibashi, a bridge that could be collapsed when the castle came under attack to create an impassable 8-metre drop. Charging into the castle, attackers would be forced to stop at the ōhorikiri, where they would be exposed to bow and arquebus fire from the pair of three-storey turrets on the tenbin yagura. Although Japanese castles are often built on a series of raised earthen embankments, the combination of ōhorikiri and otoshibashi is rare. A similar earthwork lies between the west enclosure and outer ward (deguruwa).

Tenbin Yagura

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This turret, which guards the Taikomaru Bailey and by extension the main enclosure, is called the tenbin yagura, meaning “scales turret.” The name is an allusion to the balanced, symmetrical structure of the turret, which resembles a scales. This turret’s aesthetically pleasing design is unique among the Japanese castles that remain today. Hikone’s tenbin yagura is thought to have been the main gate of Nagahama Castle, not far from the east shore of Lake Biwa, which was dismantled in the early seventeenth century when the shogunate decreed that each domain could have only one castle.