Tohoku’s Sokushinbutsu | The Mummies of Northern Japan

The torii gate that sits at the base of the Dewa Sanzan’s sacred Mount Yudono in Yamagata

Now that I have your collective attention with a sucker punch title like that, allow me to now state that we will no longer be using the term “mummy” for the rest of the article. While I mean no offense to the desiccated pharos of Egypt, many Buddhists and other lay adherents in Japan do have a gripe with the term. Thus, while it may be the easiest way to convey the concept of Sokushinbutsu to the uninitiated, I will avoid using the identifier out of respect for these devout practitioners. Some of the other literature out there does use the word synonymously though so keep this in mind if you do any further digging.

To kick things off, let’s first cover what exactly a Sokushinbutsu is. Essentially, you can think of these sacred figures as Japanese monks who have undergone the process of self-mummification, thereby making their bodies naturally preserved. To do so, they would need to begin their preparations while they were still actually alive. Though the ancient origins of this ultimate act of religious discipline are shrouded in mystery, many believe that it got its start in the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Allegedly, Kukai, the legendary founder of Mt. Koya, is said to have brought the art back with him from his studies in Tang China.

While I doubt that he was the only one to gain knowledge of how to achieve a preserved state after death, there’s some strong evidence to suggest that Kukai may have had a key role in its popularization. According to the religious histories, the begetter of Shingon Buddhism actually ended his time in the world of the living by fasting from both food and water. As you’ll see if you visit the Oku-no-in of Mt. Koya (spend the night at Eko-in if you go), followers of Kukai still purport to this day that he is merely in a deep meditation and will awaken again when the time is right.

Why one would seek to become self-mummified is a bit of a challenge for us modern folks to appreciate. In the days of yesteryear though, most people in Japan believed in Buddhism’s endless cycle of life and rebirth. Usually, it would take an eternity to earn up enough karmic credit to escape the suffering-laden cycle of Rinne (more commonly known as “Samsara” in English). Esoteric sect followers however believe that it is possible to become a Buddha in a single lifetime if the soul went through rigorous training This is one of the reasons why there were as many Sokushinbutsu attempts as there were.

These days, it’s actually illegal to seek to become a Sokushinbutsu. At the behest of Emperor Meiji, the self-mummification process, along with any other forms of assisted suicide, was outlawed in the year 1879 by the Japanese government. Still, this did not stop people from trying. In fact, the final known attempt was made by a monk named Bukkai Shonin in 1903. By then, Japan had largely modernized and people viewed him more as a madman. Since Bukkai Shonin’s go at Buddhahood was made illegally, his remains were not disinterred until 1961.

Even after six decades, the research team from Tohoku University who were studying the Sokushinbutsu were amazed at the pristine condition of Bukkai Shonin’s body. These days, his remains now rest in Daihizan Kannon-ji, a temple complex in Niigata Prefecture. All together, Japan has 18 surviving Sokushinbutsu. Of the ummm… Collection? Host? How do we count mummified monks again? Errr — nomenclature aside, know that a baker’s dozen of them can be found up in Japan’s northern Tohoku region (with most being in or around Yamagata Prefecture).

Buddhist Monks & Self Mummification

Shinnyokai Shonin was a Japanese priest of the Shugendō tradition which combines many religions in Japan into one syncretic faith. His self-mummified corpse still has its teeth intact.

If you’ve ever studied the mummies of Egypt in history class before, you were likely lectured on how specialists carefully removed the organs and rid the body of moisture. Elsewhere in the world, other religions and cultures have also employed some sort of embalming technique to keep the dead in a preserved state. Alas, the steps involved in becoming a self-mummified Buddha are an entirely different thing — remember, these people were trying to achieve the same result while still alive. We’re talking about a completely different beast here!

How one became a Sokushinbutsu is still shrouded in a bit of mystery but historians have largely been able to work out the general steps involved. In total, the entire ordeal from monk to mummified Buddha would last a little bit less than a decade. In the initial stages, those attempting to become a Sokushinbutsu would adopt an extremely strict diet. From what records we have, historians have been able to discern that this basically allowed only nuts, seeds and fruit and would power monks for the first 1,000 days. During this time, they would train themselves vigorously in the mountains.

After a little less than three years of hardcore training on the mountains, those seeking to become Sokushinbutsu would enter into the second 1,000-day-long phase. Here, they would limit their dietary intake even more and would only consume pine needles, tree bark, resins and seeds found in the mountains. This insane way of eating is known in Japanese as mokujiki (lit. “Eating a Tree”) and was a way of helping those on the path of Sokushinbutsu rid themselves of as much body fat as possible. Not to go all grim on you but when a person passes, this is the part of their corpse that is most susceptible to putrefaction.

When combined with rigorous training in the mountains and long bouts of fasting, eventually the monks’ bodies would be slowly and painfully purged of the soft flesh and tissue that is prone to decomposition. In addition to the loss of lean body mass, these ascetics would be rocking a body fat percentage that was dangerously close to zero. To put that in context, many elite bodybuilders compete on stage in the low single digits so try to envision a frame even more lean than that. To be entirely frank with you, I cannot even envision what kind of mental fortitude would be required for a person to reach that physical state.

Once the second set of 1,000 days had been completed, it would be time for a monk to prepare themselves for the final stage. By now, their bodies would be too frail for any grueling training. In place of this though, those aiming to become a “living Buddha” would instead turn to meditation. When coupled with the prolonged fasting, this would have sent a soon-to-be-mummified monk into a state of heightened sense of spiritual acuity. In all likelihood, scholars surmise that due to a complex combination of fasting biochemistry and religious discipline, the monks would not have suffered much in their final days.

In addition to ridding one’s frame of body fat and muscle tissue, one other key component to the process of self-mummification was purging any remaining body fluids. To accomplish this, the Sokushinbutsu for Dummies guidebook recommends avoiding any and all liquid intake other than a poisonous tea made from the sap of the urushi tree. As those of you who know your Japanese craftsmen well will have already identified, this is the very same substance used to make traditional lacquerware in Japan. It’s a powerful toxin that can easily produce an allergic reaction.

Consuming this dangerous drink had two key but grimsome effects. First, it would cause the imbiber’s body to start vomiting, sweating and urinating in a vain attempt to rid itself of the toxins. This aided in the rapid loss of body fluids needed for mummification. Second, the sap from the urushi tree would actually also start to line the stomach of the monks in much the same manner as it coats Japanese lacquerware. Experts believe that this is one of the key reasons why the mummified remains of Sokushinbutsu are so well preserved. After all, not even the best of protocols can stop the biological processes of decay that take place after death.

The sacred waters of Mt. Yudono are filled with enough arsenic to kill a man

As if drinking a poisonous tea was not already enough, the monks of Mt. Yudono who were seeking to become a Sokushinbutsu would also brew their batches with water from the peak’s arsenic-infused hot springs. Though miniscule traces of the deadly substance can be found in many of northern Japan’s onsens, Mt. Yudono gushes forth waters that have enough arsenic to easily kill a man. Though counter to life itself, scholars who studied the Sokushinbutsu suspect that it was the sacred waters from Mt. Yudono that were ultimately responsible for killing off many of the micromes in the body that are precursors to putrefaction.

With death now imminent for the devout monks of northern Japan’s imposing mountains, it would be time for their closing act. Here, they would crawl into a stone tomb barely larger than the size of a man sitting in the lotus position. Once interned inside alive, the enclosed would be entirely closed off from the outside world. Confined away alone in the darkness with only a small bamboo air tube for oxygen, a monk on the last leg of the journey to Buddhahood would enter into a deep meditative state for his remaining few days of life.

Before being sealed away, a potential Sokushinbutsu would bring with him a small bell to communicate with his attendants outside. Every so often, the monk would let it chime to let everyone know that he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, it would be a signal that the monk inside had passed away. Once this happened, the breathing tube was extracted and the tomb sealed away for 1,000 days. Thereafter, the other monks would patiently wait to find out if the arduous, nearly decade-long endeavor was a failure or not.

Over the years, many monks attempted Sokushinbutsu but only a few actually succeeded. Historically, it was thought that those who failed at self-mummification were lacking in spiritual strength but science has now shown us that this wasn’t necessarily the case. Instead, it was likely the perfect combination of tea brewed from urushi sap, the heavy arsenic content in the waters of Mt. Yudono and the gradual reduction of soft tissue on the monk’s bodies that led to success. Despite the Shingon sect of Buddhism existing all over Japan, this might explain why so many Sokushinbutsu can be found up north around Mt. Yudono.

Where to See the Mummified Monks

As you may recall from the opening sections of this article, the legendary monk Kukai is often credited with bringing the means of self-mummification back with him to Japan. When it comes to Kukai though, everything that is said about the fabled figure needs to be taken with a grain of salt. All throughout Japan, you’ll find stories of his exploits. In fact, their number is so great that no one man could have honestly managed to achieve them all alone. Thus, it is likely that a lot of local legends were falsely attributed to Kukai over the centuries.

Regardless of historical accuracy though, I am going to go with the assumption that he did bring this art of ancient origins to Japan to avoid confusion. Disclaimer now states, let’s take a look at a local folktale from Yamagata Prefecture. This story purports that Kukai once traveled to the region where sacred Mt. Yudono is located. Supposedly, the monk was so impressed with the spiritual power of the mountain that he set up some temples in the Shingon sect and shared with them his secrets of becoming a Sokushinbutsu.

The Dainichi boo temple complex on holy Mount Yudono is home to one of the Buddhist Sokushinbutsu mummies called Shinnyokai Shonin.

Though Kukai supposedly achieved his state of self-mummification far away from Mt. Yudono at his own mountaintop Buddhist bastion of Mt. Koya, it may have been possible that the genius monk uncovered the microm-killing potential of Mt. Yudono’s hot spring water. In any case, Yamagata Prefecture and the surrounding areas have the lion’s share of Japan’s Sokushinbutsu. In fact, here you’ll find 13 of the 18 mummified remains that still exist in Japan.

Below, I’ll detail some of the various temples to go to along with a link to a Google Map to help you plan logistics…

  • Sakata’s Kaiko-ji
    Found in the city of Sakata, Kaiko-ji is the only temple in all of Japan to be home to not one but two Sokushinbutsu. The pair go by the names of Chukai Shonin and Enmyokai Shonin. The corpses of these two have been perfectly preserved. Moreover, Kaiko-ji also has a small museum of Sokushinbutsu-related artifacts and an audio explanation in English to boot. By the way, if no one seems to be there, just ring the bell and an attendant will come greet you. Of all the places to see Sokushinbutsu, Kaiko-ji is probably the spot that is most easily accessed via public transportation and a bit of walking.
  • Churen-ji on Mt. Yudono
    Located at the foot of Mt. Yudono, Churen-ji is home to a Sokushinbutsu known as Tetsumonkai Shonin. According to local legend, the monk was once a peasant who got into a fight with a pair of samurai. Somehow, he emerged victorious but ended up killing his two assailants in the brawl. Fearing for his life, he fled to Churen-ji and became a devout monk at the temple. Eventually, he went on to walk the path of the Sokushinbutsu. When I went to Churen-ji, the Kiwi Yamabushi drove me but it looks like you can also get there via a combination of the Dewa Sanzan Sightseeing Bus and a taxi.
  • Ryusui-ji Dainichibo
    Also found at the base of holy Mt. Yudono, the Ryusui-ji Dainichibo temple complex is home to what is often hailed as one of Japan’s best preserved Sokushinbutsu, Shinnyokai Shonin (see the image at the start of the previous section for a visual). Having passed away in the year 1783 at the age of 96, this monk dedicated the entirety of his life to becoming a”living Buddha.” From what I’ve read on the official Ryusui-ji Dainichibo website, Shinnyokai Shonin was born in a time of famine and sought to rid his world of suffering by becoming a Sokushinbutsu. By the way, note that Ryusui-ji Dainichibo is about a 15 minutes walk away from Churen-ji.
  • Hidden Honmyo-ji
    Not going to lie—I have yet to actually be to this secluded spot so forgive me if the following information is inaccurate. From what Google tells me, the temple is home to a Sokushinbutsu named Honmyokai Shonin who is thought to be the oldest of the mummified monks in the area. Unfortunately, Honmyo-ji operations on a “reservation only” system and you’ll need to be able to navigate the language barrier to do so. Definitely consider bringing along a Japanese speaker if you plan to go here should you not know the language yourself.
  • Daihizan Kannon-ji
    While the aforementioned temples have all been clustered around Mt. Yudono, Daihizan Kannon-ji is instead located a little to the south down in Niigata Prefecture’s city of Murakami. Here, you’ll find Bukkai Shonin. What sets this Sokushinbutsu apart from the others is that the transformation was actually done illegally after the Japanese government decreed that the act was now assisted suicide (and therefore murder). What’s more, Bukkai Shonin was essentially left in his stone tomb up until the 1960s when researchers exhumed Japan’s last Sokushinbutsu.

Of course, the above suggestions are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Sokushinbutsu. Luckily for you, the reader, there’s a fair bit of documentation on these mummified monks out there in English should you want to do some further reading. Likewise, there’s also a lot of content on YouTube too. I guess there is just a macabre fascination with these pious ascetics who gave it all to bring an end to their world’s suffering.

Other Nearby Attractions

A Dewa Sanzan yamabushi mid training on Mt. Gassan in Yamagata Prefecture

If you’re going to go up to Yamagata and see the Sokushinbutsu, I absolutely suggest that you check out the Dewa Sanzan mountains and maybe even consider doing some ascetic training with my friends over at Yamabushido. While you’ll need to go to Mt. Yudono anyway in order to see the likes of Shinnyokai Shonin at Ryusui-ji Dainichibo and Tetsumonkai Shonin at Churen-ji, the other two Dewa Sanzan peaks are also definitely worth checking out. Just be mindful of the season as Mt. Gassan is entirely closed during the months of winter due to the insane amount of snowfall that the region gets. Likewise Mt. Haguro’s famed 2,446 stone steps are basically like an Olympic luge during this time of year.

One other place to consider is the city of Sakata. Located a little to the north of where the Dewa Sanzan are, this coastal city is home to Kaiko-ji, the only temple in Japan with two Sokushinbutsu. In addition to this set though, Sakata also has a lot of historical allures too. During the days of yesteryear, it was an important port that was a vital node that connected the north with places as far away as Osaka via the Sea of Japan. Today, there’s a number of attractions that are connected to Sakata’s past and therefore it’s a great spot for the history buffs out there.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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