Shinsyu-Iiyama Tourism bureau
Buddhist altars called butsudan have been made in Iiyama since the seventeenth century. Terase Shigetaka brought the craft from Kōfu in Yamanashi Prefecture to Iiyama, a city in central Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, around 1689. Back then the altars were simple, made only from wood, but over time they developed into the intricate, gilded items which you can admire today.
As Iiyama is located in the mountains, its craftspeople had access to forests which supplied both sap from urushi trees (for making lacquer) and wood. Combined with the large number of temples in the area, this created the perfect circumstances for the craft of Buddhist altar making to evolve and thrive. Stroll along Atago-machi, also called Butsudan Street, and you’ll still see many serene temples alongside shops dedicated to Buddhist altars.
Making butsudan is a complex process, involving woodworking, lacquerware and metalworking. You can experience a part of this process when visiting Iiyama – the hand-stamped ‘engraving’ technique which makes the altars’ metal fittings so intricate and beautiful.
You can create a bookmark in around an hour and a half, or a necklace in roughly two and a half hours, at the workshop attached to the Shin’etsu Shizenkyō Iiyama Station Tourist Information Center (book in advance). As you create your unique souvenir, you’ll have a chance to learn more about the history of the Iiyama butsudan, and metalworking techniques honed over centuries.
JR Iiyama Station is 1 hour and 50 minutes by shinkansen from Tokyo Station.
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