When mummies are mentioned, most thoughts turn to Egypt, Tutankhamen and a never-ending series of Brandon Fraser films. Japan also has a long tradition of mummification but it is one which takes a drastically different form from that of Egypt. In Egypt the body was preserved because the soul would need it in the next world. Those ascetics who attempted the process in Japan did so in a final attempt subjugate and detach the body from the mind.
I recently visited an incredibly well preserved example at Yokokura Temple in Ibigawa-cho, Western Gifu-ken. This monk, Myoshijyonin, was born in the village in 1781 and after the death of his parents embarked on an epic pilgrimage trail visiting, amongst others, the 88 shrines of Shikoku, the 33 sites in Saikoku (Kansai) and the 34 temples of Chichibu (Saitama). He then climbed Fuji-san and attempted to climb Goshotai-zan. It was here that he decided to become a mummy.
Self-inflicted mummification necessarily differs from the post-mortal method. In order to avoid decay, priests would remove the deceased organs and store them in jars around the body. The monk obviously couldn’t follow this practice. Instead a diet of nuts and berries, in conjunction with physical toil, would remove all body fat. This then gave way to an even more restrictive diet of bark and roots until the monk resembled a skeleton. Next he would begin to drink a poison made from the sap of the urushi tree. In addition to removing fluids by inducing vomiting, sweating and urinating, the poison would collect in the body, making them toxic to maggots and insects who would normally devour the body. The whole process could take as long as ten years, and one can only imagine the suffering and the strength of will needed to continue.
With the body theoretically protected from natural decay, he would be encased in a stone room little bigger than the size of a seated man. His only furnishings were a bell which he rang every day and a tube for air. When the bell ceased to ring the tube was removed and the room sealed.
The process is not fool-proof and many would rot anyway, but those who were successful became the focal point of prayer and worship. Myoshijyonin’s mummy was deified by the villagers. In Meiji 1 (1868) he was moved to a new home in Yamanashi-ken. The Emperor himself visited in Meiji 13 (1880) and finally in Meiji 23 (1890) he was returned to the temple of his hometown Yokokura.
Yokokura Temple itself has a long history. During the Heian (794-1185) and Kamakura (1185-1333) eras it was a famous site of learning and culture. The mountain was home to over 100 priests and was a major stop on the pilgrimage trail. It was destroyed by Oda Nobunaga and then lovingly restored.
It sits in a peaceful valley of clear rivers and bountiful rice fields. In autumn the trees blaze red and naturally draw many visitors. There are campsites nearby and the hills are a network of paths and trails. It is easiest to reach by road but there is public transport access via Tanigumiguchi or Kochibora stations on the private Tarumi line from Ogaki. This is a very small country line so check with them directly for services.