The Mummy at Kanshu-ji Temple
Spooky but real: This self-made mummy is a rare insight into extreme religious practice.
Mummies make most of us think of ancient Egypt. However, you may be surprised to discover that Japan, too, has its very own remarkably preserved mummies. In fact, between 16 and 24 well-preserved sokushinbutsu, or “flesh idols,” still remain today across the Tohoku region.
One spot tourists can visit by appointment is in the small town (just 6,000 people) of Asakawa in Fukushima. Kanshu-ji, as it’s commonly called, is where you can end up face to face with the unique process of self-mummification and the consequences of this gruesome ritual that stems from a sect of Buddhism.
Inside the temple
The visit can be overwhelming at first. As you step inside the temple, you will stand before luxurious furnishings, a ceiling composed of hundreds of painted characters, and the scent of incense sticks.
You’ll soon find your eye drawn to a large golden box overlooking the room, containing the mummified remains of Arisada Hoin, a Buddhist monk who undertook the ritual with the hope of becoming an immortalized protector of the town.
It’s undeniably eerie, being glared at by the 330-year-old Mummy, sitting upright in the lotus position, while dressed in a radiantly red kimono. And it gets even more so when as you discover the process of the ritual itself.
Making of a mummy
Mummification takes place in stages, requiring incredible discipline. First, the practitioner reduces their body fat through a diet of nuts and tree bark, with the aim of dehydrating the skin for preservation. They are then entombed alive in a stone container, just large enough for one, where they ring a bell every day to remind outsiders they’re still alive. When they eventually pass away, they are left there for three years.
After three years, the tomb is opened, and if the preservation is perfect and their flesh is still intact, they have “succeeded” and are placed on display. Unsurprisingly, this mind-boggling practice has been forbidden since the early 20th century due to the fact that it amounts to disciplined suicide.
Before you go
During your visit to Kanshu-ji, make a reservation with the kindly monk to guide you and tell you the story of Arisada Hoin. You’ll need to make a reservation by phone (247-36-1183) at least one day before you go.
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