Restoring the Seated Healing Buddha statue of Enichi-ji Temple
The town of Bandai in Fukushima Prefecture, where SIGMA’s unique manufacturing site is located, has focused on raising interest in Buddhist art and culture in order to revitalize the region of Aizu’s strength as a Buddhist cultural center.
Part of this effort has been dedicated towards restoring and exhibiting a seated statue of the Healing Buddha that used to be the principal object of worship at Enichi-ji Temple, a historical site in Bandai.
Experts from the the Sculpture Conservation Laboratory of Tokyo University of the Arts’ Graduate Department of Conservation have begun work on the project in 2015. Thanks to their continued efforts, the planned reopening date of early summer 2018 is within reach.
Restoration efforts such as this require a high level of expertise and necessitate a generous budget. The sophisticated restoration plan was realized thanks to cooperation between the town of Bandai, the restoration department of the Tokyo University of Arts and financial contributions by SIGMA.
Starting from scratch: assumptions and research
Since the Seated Healing Buddha statue of Enichi-ji Temple, one of the most famous temples of Japan’s Tohoku region, suffered complete destruction in the course of numerous wars and natural disasters, the restoration process had to begin from absolute zero.
Dr. Hisanori Kojima (Ph.D. in Sculpture, Conservation & Restoration), who developed the project plan and manages its progress, outlines the premise of the project:
“For the current project, we aimed for the best results possible within given limitations of building materials, budget and so on. The project direction and the fundamental outline were provided by Mr. Yabuuchi, an operational plan was provided by our research staff, who currently work on realizing the project.
Almost no information remains about the Buddha statue’s original creation. We only have information regarding the dominant sculpturing styles of the period, the historical background, local preferences and so on. During the restoration process, we relive thought processes and impressions of the time as we study dissertations by historical scholars and experiment with ancient sculpturing techniques.”
Originally carved from a single, large tree
Knowing the period and location of their creation, it is possible to ascertain to a reasonable degree the techniques used to manufacture Buddha statues.
While statues were predominantly created using clay, bronze and dry lacquer until Japan’s Nara period (710-794 AD), Enichi-ji Temple’s Seated Buddha statue was created during the early Heian period (794-1185 AD). After researching the (art-) historical background, we can estimate with reasonable certainty that the original statue must have been carved from a single tree trunk.
A statue of a Seated Healing Buddha located in Shojo Temple in the neighboring town of Yugawa serves as a guideline for our project. The statue in the Shojo temple was created from a single Keyaki tree (using a process called ‘warihagi’), and so — given the regional proximity — we can imagine the possibility that Enichi-ji Temple’s Seated Buddha, too, was carved from a Keyaki tree. At the time of the statue’s creation, the area was covered with thick, lush forests not unlike those in the Ghibli animation ‘Princess Mononoke’. Today, however, almost no trees suitably large enough remain. Even if such large trees were still alive, they would be recognized and protected as natural monuments.
Assembling blocks of high-quality Japanese Cypress wood
Instead, we turn towards a technique called yosegi-zukuri, invented and perfected during the later years of the Heian period. Yosegi-zukuri is characterized by ‘using two or more pieces of material similar in size and structure’, and has been the dominant technique between the late Heian (allowing widespread use of glass eyes in Buddhist sculpture) and the Kamakura period (1185–1333 AD).
For the carving material for Enichi-ji Temple’s restored Seated Buddha statue, the team decided to use the highest-quality Hinoki trees (Japanese Cypress) from Japan’s Kiso region. More than 100 square timber blocks were selected and assembled into large blocks to be carved. Once the sculpture is completed, its surface will be finished with lacquer and covered in gold leaf.
With the statue measuring over 2 meters (four meters including pedestal and halo), the project requires large amounts of wood and other materials, such as gold and lacquer for the finishing, the hiring of artists with specialized skillsets, the booking of suitable ateliers and so on. It is the fate of any restoration project to soak up a lot of time, material and manpower.
Combining historic research with the latest technologies
“I’ve been very impressed with Dr. Yabuuchi’s approach, which replaces photos and gypsum figures with modern technology such as virtual 3D models. It is a rare chance to be able to work on a restoration project of this scale. There’s a lot I can learn”, says research assistant Aki Yamada, who manages the project together with Hisanori Kojima.
“Thanks to the combination of modern technology and elements of historical research (including considerations such as “this is how it must have been done in ancient times”), we are able to achieve a very high precision in our restoration efforts. To think that we’ll be able to recreate the sculpture as it originally existed is a very valuable experience for me.”
Both Kojima and Yamada have majored in Sculpture at the Tokyo University of the Arts and specialized in restoration after joining the university’s Conservation and Restoration Graduate School.
“To be honest, originally I had only little interest in Buddhist statues or even buddhism as a religion”, says Kojima. “But every art student faces an inevitable question at the end of their studies: how do I turn my art into a profession? You have to think very seriously about how you are going to integrate what you’ve learned so far with making a living after graduation. During my own considerations, I arrived at the restoration of Buddhist figures. It is a rich art that has been handed down for over 1300 years in Japan. I thought it a shame that I had so little contact with it up until then.”
“It was the same for me”, says Yamada. “Before joining the graduate school, I was involved with the contemporary art world. I found it odd that—despite being born in Japan and practicing sculpturing in Japan—I had never been in contact with Buddhist sculptures even once in my life. A methodical study of all the techniques involved had not been part of my previous studies, and learning the intricacies of Buddhist sculpturing bit by bit proves a very stimulating experience.
Both seemed enthusiastic about having joined the laboratory of Prof. Yabuuchi, with its own atelier and an interdisciplinary, energetic approach towards restoration and conservation, and the resulting opportunity to follow their own path in life by working on culturally valuable projects in the field of sculpture.
Universal thought process and problem solving
“Restoration of Buddhist sculpture is a close neighbor of historical studies and art history, but our field is more practical and physically involved”, says Kojima. “While emulating the ancient manufacturing and creation processes, through experiencing first-hand the processes and steps involved in carving Buddhist figures and experiencing first-hand the sense of purpose and the final goal, we experience their real intentions and hopes and can reproduce and explain them in a practical way.
“We experience for ourselves that a particular approach would have been too cumbersome without removing certain parts here and there, or that ‘in order to arrive at this result, they had to have put a wooden piece there to create the necessary structure’.
We will share the knowledge we gained in written theses, but there are moments when we notice certain universalities, when we in the current era go through the same thought processes and problems — including “aha!” moments — as Buddhist sculptors more than 1000 years ago. That is a very interesting thing to experience, especially given the length and scope of this project. Such a valuable chance may not come again, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of this project”, so Kojima.
Creating a Buddhist statue
Research assistants Hisanori Kojima (Ph.D. in Sculpture, Conservation & Restoration) and Aki Yamada (major in Sculpture, Conservation & Restoration graduate school) were kind enough to talk to us about Buddhist sculpture and the Enichi-ji Temple restoration project. We were delighted to learn that Mr. Kojima uses SIGMA gear for his photography. His camera of choice in the laboratory is the sd Quattro equipped with the SIGMA 17-70mm F2.8-4 DC MACRO OS HSM｜Contemporary and the 30mm F1.4 DC HSM | Art lenses.
“I’m also quite interested in the dp Quattro and SIGMA’s ‘razor-sharp macro’ lens (70mm F2.8 DG MACRO | Art).”
About Enichi-ji Temple
Enichi-ji Temple was established by the Hossō Sect Buddhist monk Tokuitsu Daishi during missionary visits to Aizu in the early Heian period (794-1185 AD). The temple is famous for being the oldest temple in the Tohoku region with a known record of its foundation.
In 1589, the temple was attacked and burnt down by Date Masamune during the battle of Suriagehara, leaving only the main hall intact. But the main hall, too, was eventually destroyed in a fire in 1626, to be rebuilt and destroyed countless times before being abandoned during a nation-wide movement to abolish Buddhism in favor of Shintoism in 1869.
The temple grounds were soon recovered during preservation efforts. In 1970, the vast temple ruins were declared a national historical site. Today, the temple serves as a museum run by the town of Bandai.
About the restoration of Enichi-ji Temple’s Seated Healing Buddha statue and main hall
The restoration of the Seated Healing Buddha statue is directed by Satoshi Yabuuchi, a leading Cultural Asset Preservation scholar and father of ‘Sento-kun’, the mascot of the 1300 year celebrations of Japan’s old capital Nara, with manufacturing being handled by research staff from Yabuuchi’s laboratory.
The project spans three years, and the cost for the Buddha statue’s restoration alone is projected at about 1 hundred million yen ($930,000). With its unique manufacturing facility located near Enichi-ji Temple, Sigma took part in the joint academia, politics and industry project and donated around 70 percent of the budget. The restoration works are scheduled to be finished in early summer 2018.
More information regarding the temple and its restoration is available on the official site of Bandai (Japanese only):