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.
While Egyptians were mummified post-mortem, the Japanese method is self-administered.
Japan has a long tradition of mummification but one which is far removed from Hammer Horror and actor Brandon Fraser. 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 Myoshin 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 about a little over an hour’s drive north of Nagoya in Gifu Prefecture.
Born here in 1781, he followed the pilgrim trail across Japan, eventually settling at Goshotaizan, in Yamanashi Prefecture, east of Gifu. It was here that he decided to renounce the physical world and become a mummy.
The making of a mummy
While Egyptians were mummified post-mortem, the Japanese method is self-administered. Myoshin ate a diet of local nuts, berries, bark, and roots in order to remove all traces 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 insects that would normally devour the body. The whole process could take a decade.
With the body theoretically protected from natural decay, he was 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.
Wanna see more mummies in Japan?
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.
Nearby Myohoga-dake 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.