Buddhist Altar Cloth (uchishiki)
Tsutsugaki (rice paste resist), handpainting

In Japan there is a tradition of donating textiles, including clothing, to temples. The material is often converted to altar cloths or stoles (kesa) for the monks, and as a result many textiles that under ordinary circumstances would have been lost to time have been preserved, if not necessarily in their original form.

Based on its color and designs, this altar cloth looks like it might originally have been a boy’s festival kimono, possibly for new year’s.

The altar cloth is backed with a plain white cotton lining, on which are ink drawings, inscriptions and names. The lining appears to be newer than the blue face, which is made of homespun cotton.

The most lovingly drawn image on the altar cloth is of a monkey, dressed to do the traditional Sanbaso new year’s dance, and a horse in festival trappings. The lining unfortunately covers part of the design. The other large design is of a pair of tortoises.

There are several white resisted circles in which the artist inked in an interesting assortment of designs. Among them are Genjiko (incense game) symbols, the yin-yang symbol, some ancient Chinese characters, the traditional rabbit in the moon (below) pounding rice to make rice cakes,

the crescent moon and the Seven Sisters (or Subaru) constellation,

and a depiction of the expression “hyotan kara koma” – horses from gourds – which means more or less ‘wonders never cease’.