A Guide on Where to See the Mummies of Yamagata
Worship the dead at these temples featuring Japan’s self-mummified monks.
Buried three meters underground and breathing through a bamboo stick protruding from the dirt, the monk rings his bell each day. When the bell stops ringing it means he’s dead. Three years later, his disciples will dig him up to see if he has successfully completed the process to become a self-mummified monk or living Buddha (sokushinbutsu).
Many Buddhists attempted this rigorous process during the Edo period, around 400 years ago. Today, there are 16 mummified monks whose corpses are still preserved in Japan. Six of them, from the Shingon Buddhist sect, are centered around the rural city of Tsuruoka, Yamagata, in northern Japan.
The mummification process
After deciding to self-mummify, the monks in the Yamagata area retired to Yudono Mountain on Dewa Sanzan (The Three Mountains of Dewa) — a truly mystical place.
The monks starved themselves down to flesh and bones—eating only nuts and seeds for 1,000 days. Then they slowly drank poisonous lacquer made from the sap of the urushi (lacquer tree) so their organs wouldn’t rot after death. When they were near death, the monks were placed in an underground tomb where they sat in the lotus position (legs crossed with each foot atop the opposite thigh) reciting chants and ringing a bell so his disciples knew he was still alive.
The monk’s body was typically left underground for three years and three months until his body had fully hardened. This practice no longer happens today, but the Shingon sect of Buddhism still exists.
Start your journey at Churen-ji
Your journey to the macabre starts on Yudono Mountain at Churen-ji. According to the legend, Tetsumonkai— the temple’s resident sokushinbutsu— was a commoner who killed a samurai. He fled and decided to become a monk, which gave him protection against retaliation. He removed his left eye as an offering when a terrible eye disease was running rampant in his village. His robes are changed every 12 years.
If you want a truly morbid souvenir, purchase an amulet with a piece of the mummy’s old clothing inside— a memorable takeaway that you can collect from all the sokushinbutsu temples. While the mummy itself is wonderful, the real treat of this temple is the beautiful artwork covering its ceilings. Unfortunately, the temple does not have any English information.
- Hours May to October: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; November to April: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- We recommend using the Dewa Sanzan Sightseeing Bus as there is no local bus going to Churen-ji on the weekend, and the bus times are irregular on weekdays. From Tsuruoka station, get off at Michi no ekki Gassan. Make sure you tell the bus attendant where you are getting off— the bus doesn’t actually stop unless someone plans to get off. From there, take a taxi.
- It’s a 35-minute drive from Tsuruoka station if you rent a car.
Ritualist blessing at Ryusui-ji Dainichibo
The rainbow-colored draping on the outside of Ryusui-ji Dainichibo Temple gives no hints that there’s a corpse beyond its walls. At Dainichibo, the monks perform a cleansing ritual prayer before taking you to see the mummy, named Shinnyokai. Enter and take a seat anywhere on the tatami floor. When enough people have gathered, the ritual will begin. The explanation of Shinnyokai’s history is in Japanese, but the temple provides pamphlets in English, Chinese, and Korean among others.
- 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- From Churen-ji Temple, walk about 15 minutes.
A blessed mummy at Honmyou-ji
A sense of dread washes over you as you climb the Exorcist-style steps to Honmyou-ji temple. Isolated and shrouded in mystery, this mummy—Honmyoukai— is not as well known as the others around Dewa Sanzan. The temple was only opened to the public around 2008. If the ominous whistling in the trees around Honmyou-ji doesn’t scare you off, follow the forested path just off-site to Honmyoukai’s actual tomb. This temple does not have any English support or information and a reservation is required to visit.
- You must make a reservation by phone at 0235-53-2269. Japanese is required, so you may need to have someone make it for you.
- How to get there: From Tsuruoka station catch the bus from stop number 3 (in front of the station) and get off at Katukurisozen. From there walk about 25 minutes. Alternatively, you can drive from Tsuruoka station in about 30 minutes.
The mummies of Kaiko-ji
With their twin eternal grins almost glowing at you in the dim light, the two sokushinbutsu of Kaiko-ji keep each other company. Meet Chukai (sitting peacefully on your left) and Enmyokai (sitting peacefully on your right). If you want to collect yet another amulet of clothing, you can get two for the price of one here — each amulet has a piece of both of their robes inside. The temple has information, along with an audio explanation in English. If no one appears to be home when you reach the temple, just press the intercom button and someone will come to let you in.
- 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. From November to March 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on Tuesday and from Jan. 1 to 3.
- From Tsuruoka station take the Inaho three train to Sakata station. From there, take the Sakata City A course bus and get off at Kotobukicho. It’s a six-minute walk from there. Alternatively, you can take a taxi from Sakata Station for about ¥800.
The modest mummy at Nangaku-ji
Nangaku-ji’s sokushinbutsu also cut out his left eye. Tetsuryukai ate a diet of leaves and corn to wither himself away. He became a sokushinbutsu in 1878, a decade after the practice was outlawed. The temple was destroyed by a fire in 1956, however, in a miraculous but creepy turn of events, Tetsuryukai’s corpse was not damaged. It feels quite strange being in such a small room with a rather intimidating looking corpse staring down at you. The temple provides a detailed pamphlet in English, though the explanation will be given in Japanese.
- 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed on Jan. 2 and May 13.
- From Tsuruoka station take the bus for Asumi onsen at bus stop number two. Get off at Shonaiginkonishi Shiten and walk for five minutes. You can also rent a bicycle from the tourist information center for free and ride there in about 20 minutes.
Things to know
Tourist Info Center
The Tsuruoka Tourist Information Center is your new best friend, located right in front of Tsuruoka station. They have pamphlets in English and attendants. Just tell them where you want to go, and they’ll write the suggested route out and give you detailed maps. You can also buy the Dewa Sanzan Sightseeing shuttle bus pass here for ¥3000 which will give you access to all three mountains for the whole day. There are even restaurants inside the center, including a sake bar.
- Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
The bus times are frustratingly irregular, so you may find yourself waiting around for a while. Keep in mind the local buses going to Churen-ji, Dainichibo, and Honmyou-ji do not run on the weekend so you will have to use the Dewa Sanzan Sightseeing bus, rental car, or taxi.
Unfortunately, there are no photos allowed of the mummies themselves. Dainichibo and Kaiko-ji will let you take photos inside except for the room where the mummy is kept. Churen-ji and Nangaku-ji allow absolutely no photos inside the temple.