Style & Design

A modern answer to your home prayers

by Danielle Demetriou

Contributing Writer

With its white latticed facade, shiny walls of glass and monochrome interior lighting, passers-by could be forgiven for assuming that Wakabayashi Butsugu is a fashion flagship or contemporary interiors store.

Yet the reality is a little different, for the minimal, clean-lined space, which opened in Kyoto last month, belongs to another world entirely — it’s home to a generations-old Buddhist altar company dating back to 1830.

Japan may be famed as a nation that excels at consuming. But among the many items worshipped at the modern-day temple of global consumerism — from fashion to technology — it’s fair to say that Buddhist altars are normally pretty low on most people’s shopping lists.

Wakabayashi Butsugu is intent on changing this. The Buddhist altar company, one of around 50 in Kyoto, has long specialized in creating handcrafted altars as well as repairing temples and historical cultural properties such as Higashi Honganji, Chion-in and Nijo Castle.

However, as traditional demand for its products and services wanes — a trend echoed across Kyoto’s famed artisan world — the company has unveiled a bold new blueprint to adjust to contemporary times. First is the transformation of its main Kyoto store into a sleek, white design emporium, with a first floor selling modern Kyoto crafts — from sake cups and incense to children’s toys.

Seventh-generation Wakabayashi president Tomoyuki Wakabayashi
Seventh-generation Wakabayashi president Tomoyuki Wakabayashi

Speaking at the store opening, Tomoyuki Wakabayashi, the energetic seventh-generation Wakabayashi president, explains: “People have this image of Kyoto Buddhist altar companies being old and traditional — that is how this building used to look. But I want this new space to become a symbol of our new direction.

“We want to showcase Kyoto craftsmanship to international visitors — not just altars, but other goods too. We are encouraging our craftsmen to diversify their skills.”

The company is also taking steps to tap into an emerging altar market among younger Japanese, which it believes will soon boom as elder generations of the nation’s famously aging population pass away. It has spearheaded a string of contemporary collaborations with designers — from Naoto Fukasawa to Keita Shimizu — to create lines of modern-day altars suitable for 21st-century homes.

“Japanese people traditionally set up butsudan altars in their homes, but younger generations have not really done so. However, as more older people pass away — and this will keep increasing — we think that there is a big potential home-altar market among younger generation Japanese,” says Wakabayashi. “But we need to adapt our altars for them. They need to be smaller in size to fit in with modern homes and also cost less than traditional home altars.”

Kimi Hasegawa of Velveta Design
Kimi Hasegawa of Velveta Design

The store is perhaps the ultimate physical embodiment of Wakabayashi’s forward-looking intentions. Designed by Kimi Hasegawa of Velveta Design, the building is inspired by the concept of “wrapping,” evoked by the Japanese word “tsutsumikomu.”

“This space doesn’t just showcase altar products,” says Hasegawa, who is famed for her spatial design and illumination work. “So I wanted to create a physical concept that contains the past, the present and the future spirit of the brand, all wrapped up in one building together.”

She adds: “The building before was very dark, as many traditional office buildings tend to be. I wanted to catch people’s eye by making it light and welcoming. The white latticed facade is a contemporary take on traditional craftsmanship. The square black lighting on the first floor is also made using Kyoto fabric, with silver motifs printed by hand by acclaimed Buddhist altar craftsmen.

“In Kyoto, there is a deep sense of pride over one’s heritage. So some businesses tend to only focus on the way that they have always done things. But Wakabayashi has always had a more open approach, not only in terms of design, but also in their business style. It’s a new Kyoto style.”

Designer Keita Shimizu
Designer Keita Shimizu

The first in a series of contemporary wooden altars created by Keita Shimizu, the Tokyo-based furniture designer, takes center stage at the new store. The design is clean-lined and compact (only 35 centimeters high and wide, stretching 15 centimeters deep), with a back panel of softly hued fabric.

“This was a challenge for me as I normally make everyday furniture,” says Shimizu. “I made a very small Buddhist altar to match modern lifestyles. It is more open and casual than traditional altars — I took the doors off to let the light in — and it’s also much smaller.

“I hope that more young people will start praying at home with these. As a designer, this thought makes me very happy.”

For Wakabayashi’s mostly aging craftspeople who have spent decades making altars (each altar has 3,000-plus components), there appears to be a sense of acceptance that change is essential for the future survival of their carefully honed skills.

Among several celebrated Kyoto altar craftspeople taking part in a workshop demonstration at the store on its opening night was a smiling 72-year-old Sudo Kousho, who has spent more than five decades perfecting the art of chokokushi woodcarving.

Holding a half-finished Buddhist statue, he says: “Less than 50 people do what I do in Kyoto today. The Buddhist industry is traditionally bound by rules that we have to stick to. But I hope that we can bring new ideas to Buddhist altar making and embrace the future while also making sure the quality is the same.”

For more information, visit www.wakabayashi.co.jp.