Great Little Shops 2019

For 35 Years, This Hidden Portland Shop Has Imported Buddhist Shrines from Japan

Nayakama Butsudans carries on a family tradition from 6,000 miles away.

By Ellen Freeman November 26, 2019 Published in the December 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Inside Excalibur Comics, tucked behind a secret door, is a portal to Japan. There, a small, hushed space, packed as neatly as a bento box, is Nakayama Butsudans. The SE Hawthorne shop’s main import is Japanese Buddhist altars called butsudans, a centerpiece of the traditional Japanese home. Families display statues of the Buddha, religious scrolls, or photos of deceased family members in the altar, ringing bells and offering incense when they pray. 

“Butsudan means shrine or altar, or a place where you worship or admire something,” explains Michiyo Watanabe. The shop’s owner, Watanabe grew up in Okinawa, where her father established a company selling Buddhist religious items in the 1950s. 

Watanabe came to study business at Portland State University in the ’80s and never imagined she would stay, let alone run a branch of her family business here. But then she married a local man. What’s more, orders from her father’s company to the US started piling up. She decided to start bringing over butsudans in shipping containers, opening Nakayama Butsudans 35 years ago. The shop survived tumultuous times, including the Japanese economic bubble and exchange rate fluctuations, leaving it as the sole remaining company in the US importing butsudans directly from Japan. “People thought we should be in LA, but we stayed here,” she says. Watanabe credits the shop’s survival to the boom in popularity of yoga, meditation, and Eastern spirituality.

Shrines at Nakayama Butsudans range from simple blond wood cabinets to gold-leaf-adorned affairs with LED lights and remote-controlled doors. The shop carries everything one could need for the Buddhist shrine starter pack: sandalwood prayer beads, ornate lanterns, tiny urns for discreet match disposal, and premium smokeless Japanese incense in clean, non-head-shoppy scents including lilac, cedar, and kyara—a fragrant wood worth more than gold. 

Though fewer than half of Nakayama Butsudans’ customers are Japanese, in its own way the shop has been a vital link for the Japanese American diaspora in Portland and beyond, providing families with a physical space to honor their roots.

“Everybody has a right to choose their own religion. Even in Japan, there are more than 1,000 different types of Buddhism, just like there are more than 1,000 islands,” says Watanabe, emphasizing that her products aren’t just for Buddhists. “[They’re for] anybody who wants to heal or improve their life. A Christian priest came here and bought a bell. He said he likes to use it at his service.”

Musicians have also flown in from across the country to buy hand-pounded meditation bells, called rin, whose warm tones reverberate around a room. “It’s an art to create those bells; somebody has to have an award-winning arm or ear,” Watanabe says.

“We also have quite a few repeat customers and families,” she adds, noting word of mouth is another key to the shop’s longevity, especially with no flashy window display and an easy-to-miss door. “They call and say, ‘My grandma bought a butsudan years ago from your company. Now I want one just like hers.’”

2444 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Suite B,

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