The Mummy at Ryusui-ji Dainichibo Temple
Join a Buddhist ritual and see a real-life mummy at this temple in Yamagata
Asking a mummy to bring you good fortune may seem strange to some, but it’s a way of life at Ryusui-ji Dainichibo Temple tucked away in northern Japan in the rural city of Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture.
The temple holds one of Japan’s 16 self-mummified monks or living Buddhas (sokushinbutsu), most of which are spread across the Tohoku region in Yamagata and Fukushima prefectures. Though it sounds grotesque, the sokushinbutsu believed their eternal bodies would serve as a bridge to the spirit realm, bringing prosperity to those who worshipped them.
Ryusui-ji Dainichibo Temple is on Mount Yudono — part of Dewa Sanzan (The Three Mountains of Dewa) which is referred to by Shingon practitioners as the mountain which you cannot describe with words, but which must be experienced through the energy that flourishes there. As you walk along the misty grounds, you’ll understand why this is a sacred place.
Becoming a mummy
To become a sokushinbutsu, monks ate nothing but nuts and seeds for 1,000 days and drank a quasi-embalming fluid concoction made from tea laced with poisonous lacquer. When they were nearing death, the monks were put in an underground tomb where they sat with their legs crossed, ringing a bell every day to let their disciples know they were still alive.
The mummy at Ryusui-ji Dainichibo Temple is reportedly the best preserved and most famous in Japan. He was featured, along with other sokushinbutsu in Yamagata, in a Discovery Channel documentary in 2003 as well as an NHK segment in 2015, sparking an interest in Japan’s potential for dark tourism.
Take off your shoes and take a seat anywhere on the tatami floor to join the ritual — you have to get purified by the monks’ prayer and learn the temple history before seeing Shinnyokai, the mummy.
Sitting in front of the mummy, with the temple’s humble monk giving an in-depth explanation, is an indescribable experience. The monk keeps things lighthearted and flashes a kind smile — a stark contrast to the eerie grin of the mummy with a few remaining teeth poking through.
Every six years, Shinnyokai’s robes are changed, cut into small pieces, and placed into small amulets which you can purchase for ¥1,000. Don’t miss the 1,800-year-old cedar tree nearby the temple as an added bonus.
Visit Yamagata’s mummy temples
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