Hase Hoju is thought by many Buddhist leaders in Japan to be one of the great statue carvers of our time, both restoring existing statues as well as creating new ones. He was born and raised near Nagoya, in Toyota City, famous for auto manufacturing. “There were almost no Buddhist Temples and almost no statues,” Hase-san recalls. “When I was in the sixth grade at the age of 12, I visited Kyoto’s Sanjusangendo repository of 12th and 13th century Buddhist statuary on a school excursion, and was touched and moved by the beauty and intensity of what I saw there. Especially when I saw the life-sized statues of the 28 attendant deities of the Kannon Boddhisatva, I felt a deep and extraordinary connection. It was because of that visit that I soon after decided to become a Buddhist statue carver. Even at the age of 12, I knew that I would not be a carver without also being a priest who was educated in Buddhism. So, rather than following the path of the lay craftsman, I chose the path of the priest.”
On his own at age 12, Hase-san began to carve statues. Then, at 15, he decided to go to high school far from home in the ancient Shingon Buddhist town of Koya-san, in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture. Though there are many scores of temples and statue treasures in the town as well as hundreds of priests, there were actually no Buddhist carvers working there from whom he could learn.
“Later, I went to a Shingon Buddhist seminary college in Kyoto before beginning my apprenticeship with a master Buddhist carver. I stayed with him for three years. It was much shorter than the usual apprenticeship time, but I already had received a commission to carve a statue and could not proceed with it while apprenticed to someone else. So I quit my apprenticeship and have been independent ever since.
“For me, the process of creating a statue begins when an image first comes slowly together in my mind. After making a sketch, I carve a wooden scale model. By using an engineering protractor, I am able to transfer the correct proportions of up to five times the size of the model, to the actual full sized statue. If, however, I use the protractor to make a statue that is more than 5 times the size of the model, the size of the head inevitably looks too large for the body.”
Most statues are made from hinoki cypress. The body of the statue is actually composed of a number of pieces of wood that have been bonded together, then, hollowed out. This technique dates back almost 1000 years and not only makes statues lighter and easier to handle, but prevents them from splitting, as do those carved from solid pieces of wood. After carving is complete the statue can be covered with a gauze-like cloth, lacquered and finally covered in gold leaf. Other statues are left in their natural color whereas still others are painted in a wide range of colors.
“You didn’t ask why I went to Orisa. I’ve actually traveled to India many times for research on ancient statuary at museums and archeological sites. I am very interested in the earliest period of Buddhist statues. I have recently edited my photos and data of my trips to Orisa and compiled them into a book. I eventually want to recreate the original statues of Buddha. Though most of them have been destroyed, by piecing together the remains from that time, I have already been able to reconstruct statues of that period. My dream is to do this, possibly using a kind of cement. Also, I would like to continue to repair some of the poorly restored statues in Indian museums.”
In Collaboration with Photographer, Helen Hasenfeld
© Photos by Helen Hasenfeld
A SLIDE SHOW of HASE-SAN and his WORK
- Omori-Cho: Gungendo
- Allan West: Nihonga Artist