The Mummy of Yokokura Temple
The mummified remains of an 18th-century monk resides in this peaceful rural temple.
Mention mummies and most people will think of Egypt, Tutankhamen and Halloween. They’ll likely picture black-and-white horror movies where the hero and heroine are pursued by something that looks like a zombie given a slapdash bandaging by a distracted paramedic. Popular culture hasn’t served the mummy well, but like all stereotypes, there is more to the story.
Japan has a long tradition of mummification.
Japan has a long tradition of mummification but one which is far removed from Hammer Horror and actor Brandon Fraser. Rather, mummification was a respected aspect of ascetic life once practiced by only the most devoted monks, some of whom have survived the centuries and can be visited today.
One such holy man is Myoshinjyoin, whose incredibly well-preserved corpse watches over Yokokura Temple (formally Ryoukaizan Yokokura Temple) that sits in a peaceful valley of clear rivers and bountiful rice fields. The temple, built in 801, lies in the small but scenic town of Ibigawa northeast of Lake Biwa in western Gifu Prefecture.
Where to see more mummies in Japan?
The making of a mummy
While Egyptians were mummified post-mortem, however, the Japanese method is self-administered.
Myoshinjyoin ate a diet of local nuts, berries, bark and roots in order to remove all trace of body fat and bring his biochemistry into synch with the natural world around the temple. Next, he drank a poison made from the sap of the urushi (Japanese lacquer) tree which purged the body of fluids and made it toxic to maggots and insects that would normally devour the body. The whole process could take a decade.
With the body theoretically protected from natural decay, he would be encased underground in a stone room a little bigger than the size of a seated man. His only furnishings were a bell which he rang every day and a tube for air. When the bell ceased to ring the tube was removed and the room sealed.
At some point, the tomb is opened and the mummy enshrined in the temple. In the start of the Meiji Era (1868) Myoshinjyoin was moved from Goshotaizan to a new home in Yamanashi and in 1890 he was returned to the temple of his hometown, Yokokura, where he sits in a special building overlooking the temple compound.
Visitors can see his remains, pray for a blessing and read about his life, but photographs are prohibited.
Know before you go
In autumn, the trees blaze red and naturally draw many visitors and the hills are a network of paths and trails. This is probably the best time to visit, too.
Nearby Myohogadake, Seitaizan and Tonokura mountains offer rewarding hikes, but there isn’t much in the way of accommodation in the area, so you’re better off heading back to Ogaki, Gifu or Nagoya cities at the end of the day.