The Mummy at Saisho-ji Temple
The oldest Buddhist mummy in Japan.
Hidden within the mountaintop Saisho-ji Temple in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture sits the mummified corpse of Kochi Hoin. Kneeling in seiza form, barely illuminated by the softly flickering candles that surround him, he appears ready to conduct a sermon―even after all these centuries.
Kochi is the oldest of Japan’s sokushinbutsu, or “flesh idols,” Buddhist monks following asceticism that were mummified while alive. Add a bit of mysticism to your Niigata trip by visiting him after you’ve seen nearby Yahiko Shrine perched atop a volcano and soaked in Tsubame Onsen.
Life and legend of Kochi Hoin
Originally Hirotomo, Kochi was born at the end of the 13th century in Shimosa province (modern-day Chiba Prefecture). As legend has it, he led a life of sin and indulgence, neglecting his pregnant wife and son to frequent the pleasure districts. After being disowned by his father, his wife passed away, but not before giving birth to a second son who was carried off by a wolf.
This series of tragedies led Kochi to embark on a pilgrimage through Dewa Sanzan and the Oshu province (covering the modern-day northern Tohoku region) where he encountered the ghost of his late wife. He also underwent seven years of training at Mount Koya in Wakayama before returning to Niigata to find his father dead and his eldest son orphaned.
An encounter with ghosts
The eldest son became his disciple and as they made their way back to Mount Koya, the pair was reunited with the youngest son, who had not been abducted by a real wolf, but rather an incarnation of Buddha.
An encounter with the ghosts of his deceased parents propelled Kochi to begin the ascetic training necessary to becoming a sokushinbutsu. He ascended to the realm of eternal meditation and became a mummy through a process of self-starvation in 1363.
For the temple itself, there’s also a human skull and taxidermied wolf on display. Further inside is what looks like a mummified cat, but the temple insists it’s a “thunder beast.” You’ll have to see this one to believe it.
Wanna know more about Japan’s mummified monks and the strange process it takes to become one? Check our guide on where to see the mummies of Yamagata.