A pamphlet from Dainichibou temple depicting a mummified monk

Living Buddhas – The Mummies of Japan’s North Country

A visit to Japan’s mummified monks is a trip down a mysterious, if not creepy, path. For those interested in esoteric religious practice, a fascinating study indeed—but certainly not for the faint hearted.

The “living Buddhas,” or sokushinbutsu as they are known in Japanese, differ from the more well-known mummies of Egypt in that they self-mummified while still alive. If you need a minute to reread that last sentence, take it now, because this story continues toward the bizarre, and no, I’m not making it up!

The intense process of becoming a sokushinbutsu was performed by followers of a particular form of shugendo, which is a mixture of Buddhism, Shintoism, and mountain worship. That the syncretic religion flourished in the Dewa region is not surprising. The three sacred mountains of Haguro, Gassan, and Yudono emit a mystique that seems to echo the footsteps of the pilgrims and priests who have climbed their peaks in times past.

Vermillion shrine gate in the distance of a snowy landscape
The entrance to Yudono shrine at the base of the mountain. Photo by Nick Cheesman

The grey skies and unpredictable nature of north country’s deep winters add a loneliness and tension to this aura, reflected in the layers of various winter paneling that protect temples from the weight of snowfall and snowdrift.

Churenji temple with winter paneling
Churen-ji temple with winter paneling. Photo by Pisith.

Monks embarking on the path to sokushinbutsu often viewed it as a sacrifice for their communities in times of epidemics and severe poverty, but the practice was banned by the Meiji government (150 years ago) as backward and superstitious. Visiting the sokushinbutsu is, then, a chance to contemplate the extremities of discipline and sacrifice in harsh conditions.

A shugendo priest offering prayers at the base of Yudono. Photo by Nick Cheesman.

Becoming a sokushinbutsu was a multi-step process:

  • Step 1: One thousand days of strict mediation, mountain wandering, and fasting. Fasting begins with omitting all grains and beans and moving to a diet of only wild nuts, seeds, roots, and bark to shed all fat and most muscle.
  • Step 2: Drinking urushi, a sap related to poison sumac to “lacquer” the body’s insides.
  • Step 3: Entering a stone tomb three meters deep and connected to the outside only by a bamboo pipe that serves as an air vent.
  • Step 4: Meditation and ringing a single bell every hour while still alive.
  • Step 5: Upon silence, the tomb is sealed and not opened again for three years and three months, from which time the monk inside is considered a sokushinbutsu.

Japan’s north country is home to six sokushinbutsu, bodies eternally preserved in lotus position and elaborately clothed in robes. Most are located in temples around Tsuruoka, near Mount Yudono.

A one-eyed statue at Dainichibou temple depicts the sacrifice of some monks during a local epidemic of eye disease. Photo by Nick Cheesman.

At Dainichibou (大日坊), you can learn more about the nearly 2,000-year history of local shugendo worship and its suppression directly from the head monk’s English-speaking daughter. This is interesting not only for its content, but also because Dainichibou was once the last temple stops for female pilgrims, who were forbidden from climbing the mountain. Nearby Churen-ji Temple (注連寺) also has a sokushinbutsu. Dainichibou and Churen-ji are located along the bus route, which connects Tsuruoka Station with Yudono-san. Get off at Oami bus stop (大網), from where Dainichibou can be reached in a 5–10 minute walk and Churen-ji can be reached in a 20 minute walk.

Nankaguji temple
Nangakuji temple is a short bike ride from Tsuruoka station.

Nangaku-ji (南岳寺) is a 15-minute bicycle ride from the Tsuruoka station (the Tsuruoka Tourist Information Center at the station has free bicycle rentals). The total lack of fanfare around the sokushinbutsu here only emphasizes how the past practice is not necessarily considered strange, but rather largely forgotten and neglected.

Honmyouji Temple
Photo by Jun K on Flickr.

The steep steps leading up to the more secluded Honmyou-ji, located in a forested grove with views of the surrounding mountains, provide a more atmospheric experience than Nangaku-ji, but this temple is a bit harder to access (30 minute drive from Tsuruoka station or from Tsuruoka station catch the bus from stop number 3, get off at Katukurisozen and walk about 25 minutes). It is a good idea to call ahead before visiting this temple.

Forest grove behind Honmyou-ji temple. Photo by Jun K on Flickr.

What led these monks to do something that today seems unimaginable, what were the conditions of their time, and how are they related to today’s shugendo? A self-guided tour of the sokushinbutsu takes you to a little explored area of Japan where the unwritten scroll of answers to such questions is a rare kindle to curiosity.

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