Archive for February, 2010

Self-Mummified Monks

February 3, 2010

Self-mummified monk

Scattered throughout Northern Japan are two dozen mummified Japanese monks known as Sokushinbutsu. Followers of Shugendo, an ancient form of Buddhism, the monks died in the ultimate act of self-denial. Estimates of the number of self-mummified priests in Japan range between sixteen and twenty-four priests. Impressive though this number is, many more have tried to self-mummify themselves.

For three years the priests would eat a special diet consisting only of nuts and seeds, while taking part in a regimen of rigorous physical activity that stripped them of their body fat. They then ate only bark and roots for another three years and began drinking a poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, which contains Urushiol (same stuff that makes poison ivy), normally used to lacquer bowls. This caused vomiting and a rapid loss of bodily fluids. Finally, a self-mummifying
monk would lock himself in a stone tomb barely larger than his body, where he would not move from the lotus position. His only connection to the outside world was an air tube and a bell. Each day he rang a bell to let those outside know that he was still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, the tube was removed and the tomb sealed.

As you can see, the process of self-mummification was a long and extremely painful process that required a mastery of self-control and denial of physical sensation. The self-made mummies of Japan are people who have earned the respect now shown to them, as they exemplify the teachings of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism.

Not all monks who attempted self-mummification were successful, but the pay-off for the ones who succeeded was quite high. They were raised to the status of Budda, put on display, and tended to by their followers. The Japanese government outlawed Sokushunbutsu in the late 19th century, though the practice continued into the 20th. The practice of self-mummification, which is a form of suicide after all, had to be outlawed to prevent Buddhist priests from offing themselves this way.

A few Buddhist temples in northern Japan are home to “living mummies” known as sokushinbutsu. The preserved bodies are purportedly those of ascetic monks who willingly mummified themselves in the quest for nirvana.

Self-mummified monk

Shinnyokai-Shonin “living mummy” at Dainichibo Temple (Yamagata prefecture)

To become a living mummy, monks had to undergo a long and grueling three-step process:

Step 1. For 1,000 days, the monks would eat a special diet of nuts and seeds, and engage in rigorous physical training to strip the body of fat.

Step 2. For another 1,000 days, they would eat only bark and roots in gradually diminishing amounts. Toward the end, they would start drinking tea made from the sap of the urushi tree, a poisonous substance normally used to make Japanese lacquer bowls, which caused further loss of bodily fluid. The tea was brewed with water from a sacred spring at Mt. Yudono, which is now known to contain a high level of arsenic. The concoction created a germ-free environment within the body and helped preserve whatever meat was left on the bone.

Step 3. Finally, the monks would retreat to a cramped underground chamber connected to the surface by a tiny bamboo air pipe. There, they would meditate until dying, at which point they were sealed in their tomb. After 1,000 days, they were dug up and cleaned. If the body remained well-preserved, the monk was deemed a living mummy.

Living monk

Tetsumonkai-Shonin “living mummy” at Churenji temple (Yamagata prefecture)

Living monk

Arisada Hōin, 300-yr-old “living mummy” at Kanshūji temple (Fukushima)

Unfortunately, most who attempted self-mummification were unsuccessful, but the few who succeeded achieved Buddha status and were enshrined at temples. As many as two dozen of these living mummies are in the care of temples in northern Honshu.

The Japanese government outlawed the practice of self-mummification in the late 19th century.

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Mermaid Mummies

February 3, 2010

In Edo-period Japan — particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries — mermaid mummies were a common sight at popular sideshow carnivals called misemono. These wildly popular shows featured crafts, acrobats and animals in a kaleidoscopic blend of attractions that were believed to bring luck, fortune and health to the audience. One attraction commonly featured at these shows was the mermaid. Over time, the practice of mermaid mummification blossomed into an art form as fishermen perfected techniques for stitching the heads and upper bodies of monkeys onto the bodies of fish.

The mummy pictured below is a prime example of a carnival mermaid. It appears to consists of fish and other animal parts held together with string and paper.

Feejee mermaid gaff --
Mermaid mummy at the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden

The mummified creature was obtained by Jan Cock Blomhoff while serving as director of Dejima, the Dutch trading colony at Nagasaki harbor from 1817 to 1824. It now resides at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden.

Another old mermaid mummy exhibited at a museum in Tokyo several years ago appears to belong to the founder of the Harano Agricultural Museum.

Fiji mermaid gaff --
Mysterious mermaid mummy

The mummy’s origin is unknown, but the collector says it was found in a wooden box that contained passages from a Buddhist sutra written in Sanskrit. Also in the box was a photograph of the mermaid and a note claiming it belonged to a man from Wakayama prefecture.

Mermaid at misemono

Sideshow carnivals in Europe and America in the 1800s also featured mermaids, many of them from Japan and the West Indies. The most famous of these mermaids was P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid, which is believed to have been created around 1810 by a Japanese fisherman. The art of creating faux mermaids was perfected by fishermen and often involved stitching the heads and upper bodies of monkeys onto the bodies of fish.

P.T. Barnum's Fiji Mermaid

(P.T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid)

A few of these old, mummified mermaids can still be found in the care of temples and shrines around Japan.

Here’s a photo of a mermaid mummy at Zuiryuji Temple in Osaka, which was bestowed to the temple as an offering from a Sakai-area trader in 1682. The temple also has in its possession the mummies of a kappa and a small dragon.

Mermaid at Zuiryuji Temple in Osaka

Mermaid at Zuiryuji Temple in Osaka

Another mummified mermaid is preserved at Myouchi Temple in the city of Kashiwazaki in Niigata prefecture. The mermaid is about 30 cm long and is holding its hands up near its cheeks — apparently a common pose for mummified mermaids. The proprietors of the temple keep the mermaid in a small wooden chest out of view, but according to the account at the link below, they will allow you to check it out if you ask nicely.

Mermaid at Myouchi

The next photo shows a mermaid mummy at Karukayado Temple outside the city of Hashimoto in Wakayama prefecture. The 50-cm long mummy has fangs that protrude from its wide open mouth, and both of its hands are raised to its cheeks, like the previous mermaid. Its lower body is covered in scales, and there appear to be the vestiges of fins on its chest, as well as a pair of nipple-like protuberances.

Mermaid (unknown)

The next photo (left) shows the mummy owned by a Shinto sect headquartered in the city of Fujinomiya near the base of Mt. Fuji. At 170 cm tall and 1,400 years old, it is the largest and oldest known mermaid mummy in Japan. The mermaid has an unusually large head that is bald, except for some hair growth that extends from its forehead to its nose. Its eyes and mouth are open. It has webbed hands with sharp claws, and a 20-cm long tail. The lower body has a bone structure similar to that of a fish, but it is unclear whether or not the upper body has a bone structure. The entire body shows signs of having been ravaged by moths.

Legend has it that this mermaid appeared to Prince Shotoku as he was passing along the shores of Lake Biwa (about 1,400 years ago). The hideous beast told the prince about how it had been transformed into a mermaid as punishment for making a living as a fishermen within the boundaries of an animal sanctuary. The mermaid claimed that over many years it had come to a clear understanding of the horrors of destroying life, and that it was prepared to move on to the next world. As a final wish before dying, though, it asked the prince to establish a temple using the mermaid’s body as a centerpiece, where it could be used to educate people about the sanctity of life. The mermaid then died. The prince took the mermaid’s body and set up a temple as requested. But after a number of strange occurrences, the mummy was passed on to another temple. The mummy changed hands several times before ending up at its current location at the base of Mt. Fuji.

Fuji mermaid speaks to Shotoku Taishi

Fuji mermaid speaks to Shotoku Taishi

Fuji mermaid speaks to Shotoku Taishi

Fuji mermaid speaks to Shotoku Taishi

Fuji mermaid speaks to Shotoku Taishi

Also claiming a connection to this legend is Kannon Shoji Temple in Shiga prefecture, which is nicknamed the “mermaid temple.” This temple professes to be the one established by Prince Shotoku at the request of the mermaid. The temple reportedly has an old, 50-cm mermaid on the premises, though no images are available online.

And finally, here are a few sketches of mermaids drawn by Keisuke Ito (1803 – 1901), a man who played an instrumental role in introducing Western medicine to Japan. In addition to establishing a method for smallpox vaccination in Japan and helping to set up what is today known as Nagoya University, he drew numerous sketches of plant and animal specimens. Buried deep in the volumes of sketches he made of marine animals, which show a variety of rather fantastic, but mostly realistic-looking fish, are the following specimens:

Mermaids depicted by Ito Keisuke

Mermaids depicted by Ito Keisuke

Newspaper featuring found creatures:

Mermaid Paper 1

Mermaid Paper 2

Monster Mummies

February 3, 2010

Monster Mummies of Japan

Lurking the halls of Buddhist temples and museums across Japan are a host of monster mummies — the preserved remains of demons, mermaids, kappa, tengu, raijū, and even human monks. Here are a few remarkable specimens for the adventurous and brave at heart.

Demon mummies

It might seem odd that Buddhist temples in Japan house the occasional stray mummified demon (oni), but then again it makes sense to keep them under the watchful eye of a priest, instead of letting them prowl the streets.

Zengyōji (善行寺) temple in the city of Kanazawa (Ishikawa prefecture) is home to the mummified head of a three-faced demon. Legend has it that a resident priest discovered the mummy in a temple storage chamber in the early 18th century. Imagine his surprise.

Triple-faced demon mummy --
Three-faced demon head at Zengyōji temple   [Photos]

Nobody knows where the demon head came from, nor how or why it ended up in storage.

The mummified head has two overlapping faces up front, with another one (resembling that of a kappa) situated in back. The temple puts the head on public display each year around the spring equinox.

Demon mummy --

Another mysterious demon mummy can be found at Daijōin temple in the town of Usa (Oita prefecture).

The mummy is said to have once been the treasured heirloom of a noble family. But after suffering some sort of misfortune, the family was forced to get rid of it.

The demon mummy changed owners several times before ending up in the hands of a Daijōin temple parishioner in 1925. After the parishioner fell extremely ill, the mummy was suspected of being cursed.

The parishioner quickly recovered from his illness after the mummy was placed in the care of the temple. It has remained there ever since. Today the enshrined demon mummy of Daijōin temple is revered as a sacred object.

A much smaller mummy — said to be that of a baby demon — was once in the possession of Rakanji Temple at Yabakei (Oita prefecture).

Demon mummy --
Baby demon mummy at Rakanji temple

Unfortunately, the treasured mummy was destroyed in a fire in 1943.

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Kappa mummiesLike the mermaid mummies, many kappa (river imp) mummies are thought to have been crafted by Edo-period artists using parts of animals ranging from monkeys and owls to stingrays.

Kappa mummy --
Kappa mummy at the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden (Netherlands)

This mummified kappa, which now resides in a Dutch museum, appears to consist of various animal parts put together in a seamless whole. It is believed to have been created for the purpose of carnival entertainment in the Edo period.

Another mummified kappa can be found at Zuiryūji temple in Osaka.

Kappa mummy --
Kappa mummy at Zuiryūji Temple, Osaka [Photo]

The 70-centimeter long humanoid purportedly dates back to 1682.

Another notable kappa mummy can be seen in a seemingly unlikely place — at a sake brewery in the town of Imari (Saga prefecture).

Kappa mummy --
Kappa mummy at Matsuura Brewery

According to a company brochure, the mummified kappa was discovered inside a wooden box that carpenters found hidden in the ceiling when replacing the roof over 50 years ago.

Reckoning the creature was an old curiosity their ancestors had passed down for generations, the company owners built a small altar and enshrined the kappa mummy as a river god.

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Raijū

With a limited scientific understanding of the sky above, the common person in Edo-period Japan looked upward with great awe and mystery. Supernatural creatures called raijū (雷獣) — lit. “thunder beast” — were believed to inhabit rain clouds and occasionally fall to earth during lightning strikes.

The earliest known written records of the raijū date as far back as the late 18th century, though the creature appears to borrow characteristics from the nue — a cloud-dwelling, illness-inducing chimera first described in The Tale of the Heike, a 12th-century historical epic.

Details about the raijū’s appearance vary. Some Edo-period documents claim the raijū resembled a squirrel, cat or weasel, while others describe it as being shaped more like a crab or seahorse.

Raiju Raiju
Raijū depicted in the Kanda-Jihitsu (ca. 1800) // Raijū seen in Tottori, 1791

However, most descriptions agree that the raijū had webbed fingers, sharp claws, and long fangs that, by some accounts, could shoot lightning. The beast also sometimes appeared with six legs and/or three tails, suggesting the ability to shape-shift.

One illustrated document tells of a raijū that fell from the sky during a violent storm on the night of June 15, 1796 in Higo-kuni (present-day Kumamoto prefecture).

Raiju
Illustration of raijū encountered on June 15, 1796

Here, the raijū is described as a crab-like creature with a coat of black fur measuring about 11 centimeters (4 inches) thick.

Another notorious encounter took place in the Tsukiji area of Edo on August 17, 1823. Two versions of the incident offer different descriptions of the beast.

Raiju
Raijū encounter, August 17, 1823 – Version 1

One document depicts the raijū as being the size of a cat or weasel, with one big bulging eye and a single long horn, like that of a bull or rhino, projecting forward from the top of its head.

Raiju
Raijū encounter, August 17, 1823 – Version 2

In the other account, the raijū has a more roundish look and lacks the pointy horn.

In Volume 2 of Kasshi Yawa (”Tales of the Night of the Rat”), a series of essays depicting ordinary life in Edo, author Matsuura Seizan writes that it was not uncommon for cat-like creatures to fall from the sky during thunderstorms. The volume includes the story of a family who boiled and ate one such creature after it crashed down onto their roof.

Given the frequency of raijū sightings, it should come as no surprise that a few mummies have turned up.

In the 1960s, Yūzanji temple in Iwate prefecture received a raijū mummy as a gift from a parishioner. The origin of the mummy, as well as how the parishioner obtained it, is a mystery.

Raiju
Raijū mummy at Yūzanji temple

The mummy looks like that of a cat at first glance, but the legs are rather long and the skull has no visible eye sockets.

Raiju
Raijū mummy at Saishōji temple   [Photo]

A similar raijū mummy is on display at Saishōji temple in Niigata prefecture.

* * * * *

– Tengu mummy

Another legendary supernatural sky creature is the tengu, a dangerous demon often depicted in art as being part human and part bird. The Hachinohe Museum (Aomori prefecture) in northern Japan is home to a tengu mummy, which is said to have once belonged to Nambu Nobuyori, a Nambu clan leader who ruled the Hachinohe domain in the mid-18th century.

Tengu mummy
Tengu mummy at Hachinohe Museum

The mummy, which appears to have a humanoid head and the feathers and feet of a bird, is believed to have originated in the town of Nobeoka (Miyazaki prefecture) in southern Japan. Theories suggest the tengu mummy made its way north after being passed around between members of Japan’s ruling samurai families, some of whom were deeply interested in collecting and trading these curiosities.

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February 3, 2010

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