The Mummy at Churen-ji Temple
What do The Beatles and a mummy have in common? You can find them both at this Yamagata Temple.
Sitting cross-legged in eternal meditation is Tetsumonkai, the ancient mummy who brings good fortune and health to visitors of Churen-ji Temple, located in northern Japan.
Self-mummification was a common practice among Shugendo Buddhists until it was outlawed in the late 1860s. During the Edo period, some monks took this practice to the extreme and self-mummified to become “living Buddhas” or what we would more commonly call now, a mummy. You can travel to see several of these living Buddhas at temples like Churen-ji in and around Tsuruoka City, a little-known area in Yamagata Prefecture that is ripe for discovery.
Start your pilgrimage
To this day, Shugendo Buddhist monks still take the pilgrimage at Dewa Sanzan (The Three Mountains of Dewa), a sacred area that remains one of the biggest draws to visiting Yamagata. It is part of a strict brand of mountain worship called Yamabushi-do, but travelers can also partake in the pilgrimage.
It is common to start at Churen-ji when heading to Dewa Sanzan. First purchase a white ceremonial cord to wear around your neck from the temple – it will protect you from any negative energy or malicious forces lingering on the mountains. As you ascend the 2,250 steps on Mount Yudono, it is a symbolic journey of spiritual rebirth and one of the most important pilgrimages in Japan next to Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture.
Wait, a mummy?!
While he isn’t the oldest or most famous mummy in the area — that honor goes to Shinnyokai, the mummy at the nearby Dainichibo Temple — Tetsumonkai is known for his missionary work and devotion to helping others. He gouged out his left eye and threw it into the Sumida River as an offering to stop an eye disease that was running rampant. According to the legend, it worked.
Beyond self-mutilation, he also gathered 10,000 volunteers to build a road from Tsuruoka to a nearby port opening the area up for trading opportunities. Several other mummified monks whose bodies can also be visited in Yamagata, followed his teachings.
His luxurious gold-speckled robes are changed every 12 years, cut into pieces and sold in amulets available for purchase at the temple. The mummy is not the only thing to see here, however.
Wait, The Beatles?
The Beatles are probably the last thing to come to mind when thinking about mummies or Japanese temples in general, so you’ll be surprised to see a painting of them here. They are joined by Prince, and other historical figures who have been immortalized in a collection of small square portraits. Taking your time to see who you can identify among them is an experience that gives the temple a special charm.
Don’t forget to look up. Churen-ji is almost like a mini art museum with elaborate works covering every ceiling. There’s a fierce dragon, a grandmother’s praying hands, and a pair of white horses that were all done with gentle pencil strokes.
Unfortunately, no photos are allowed of the mummy, so you’ll just have to come and see for yourself.