The Dewa Sanzan area is a mystical land of mountain ascentics and of "living Buddhas" – monks who mummified themselves in order to achieve enlightenment – Japan's very own mummies intrigue visitors.
In this modern day and age one is forgiven for doubting that anybody wants to undergo serious ascetic training. Think of arduous hikes up and down some steep mountain slopes, food and sleep deprivation, prayers and other religious rituals, and you get the picture of what yamabushi (“one who lay in the mountains”) do.
They are not members of a sort of Japanese SAS unit but followers of the ancient Japanese religious tradition of Shugendo, literally “the way of training and testing”. Their goal is nothing less than enlightenment during this very lifetime.
Dewa is the name of an old Japanese province that is now part of Yamagata Prefecture in the north of Honshu Island. Three mountains, Mount Haguro, Mount Gas and Mount Yudono, are considered to be sacred by the followers of the Shugendo tradition which dates back over a 1,400 years.
Shugendo is based on mountain worship and folk religion but has incorporated elements of Shinto, Buddhism and Taoism making it syncretistic by nature.
Traditionally the Shugendo priests and pilgrims start their walk across the three peaks at Toge, a small village on foot of Mount Haguro. They would then proceed to Mount Gas and finally to Mount Yudono.
However, women were forbidden to worship at Yudono Shrine, the final goal of the pilgrimage, in the old days. They were only allowed as near as Dainichibo, a temple at the foot of Mount Yudono.
The temple is said to have been established by Kobodaishi (774-835), the founder of the Shingon sect of Buddhism and probably Japan’s best known saint. Legend has it that after coming back from China where he underwent Buddhist training Kobodaishi petitioned the ruler at the time to build a temple. Baffled about where the location should be, he threw two ritual objects used in Buddhist ceremonies into the air.
The first hit a cedar tree standing near Dainichibo Temple in Yamagata Prefecture and the second hit a pine tree on Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture. He impromptu established a temple at each site, both of which are still places of worship, as are the trees that are still there today.
The cedar tree at Dainichibo Temple is estimated to be over 1,800 years old. The tree is refereed to as “imperial altar cedar tree” as it was planted on the gravesite of Prince Mimurowake, a child of Emperor Keiko, the 12thEmperor of Japan. This reaches back into the realms of legend and pre-dates Kobodaishi by several hundred years!
Fast forward again, Dainichibo Temple was actually under the patronage of the Tokugawa Shogunate during Japan’s Edo Era (1600s onward). The temple was one of seven Kigan-ji (“protection temple” that were supposed to pray for the well-being of the Emperor) which were located in different places Japan.
Considering the close relationship between the Tokugawa Shoguns and the local daimyo clan, the Sakai, this is not surprising. Historical records also show that the Sakai Clan made some large donations to the temple.
If this is not already interesting enough, then consider this: the main attraction at Dainichibo is a fellow named Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai Shonin. He is one of a number of so-called “Living Buddhas” that can be found in temples in the Yamagata area.
What you see now looks like mummies in a priest’s robe. However, different from their counterparts in Egypt, they were not mummified after death but they self-mummified their bodies while being alive by following a severe ascetic routine and diet as part of their religious training as a Buddhist monk.
As the story goes, born in 1687 Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai Shonin was attracted to the teachings of Buddhism at an early age and he entered the Buddhist priesthood. His base was Dainichibo Temple.
Unbelievably but he aspired to become a “Living Buddha” from his early twenties and in order to do so, he began to follow an austere religious practices that consisted of eating only nuts and seeds and later bark and roots from pine trees.
Aged 96, he put himself on an even stricter diet of salt and water only and eventually drunk Urushi tea, a poisonous drink made from bark, which coats the inside of the body with a lacquer-like substance. He then meditated in a stone tomb until he died.
The tomb was sealed for 1,000 days and after it was re-opened the body was found mummified and unharmed by maggots due to its poisonous nature as a result of the monk having drunk Urushi tea. He was given the holy status of “sokushin-butsu”, or “living Buddha”. His body can now be seen in Dainichibo Temple.
While a contemplation of such severe ascetic exercises is not everyone’s cup of tea, the ordinary mortals amongst us will enjoy the mystical atmosphere at Dainichibo.
Walk through the centuries-old Niomon Gate built in Japan’s Kamakura Era (1185-1333) and you enter the spiritual realm of Dainichibo. In the old days worshippers left their traditional straw sandals and one can even spot some plastic sandals that must have been left here more recently. Some visitors also put a five-yen coin in the rope of the temple gong, probably in the hope that this offering helps to make their prayers heard.
Visitors are led to Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai Shonin in groups and a priest solemnly explains how he reached “Living Buddha” status. You find yourself starring at the mummy trying to figure out whether this really used to be a human being of flesh and blood once. You have to decide for yourself whether what you see is indeed a case of mummification or some sort of scheme to attract tourists.
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Celebrating my 10th year anniversary in Japan in May 2018, the country that I call home now. I lived in crazy Tokyo for 6 years and since 2011 I call the Kii Peninsula (Kumano, Koyasan and Yoshinoyama) my home. I have visited all 47 prefectures of Japan and for the last 4 years I have worked as a guide for foreign visitors. My special interest is in Japanese nature and spirituality. I love spending time in the forest and mountains and I love visiting temples and shrines. I am also a licensed guide for the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails and for Koyasan, the Buddhist monastery, in addition to being a practitioner and guide for Shinrin Yoku (Forest Therapy). In recent years I have taken visitors to walk the Kumano Kodo trails, the Nakasendo trail, the 88 temple pilgrimage trail around Shikoku Island and to Dewa Sanzan, the three sacred mountains in Yamagata Prefecture. If you look for nature and spirituality in your trip to Japan, then Wakayama, Nara and Yamagata Prefectures are ideal places to get started!