The Mummy Buddha of Saisho-ji Temple 西生寺
Close your eyes and think of a Buddhist temple. What do you imagine? Perhaps, monks chanting resonant mantras, the fragrant smoke of incense sticks, the tinkling of bells, traditional carvings, and an atmosphere of peaceful contemplation. How about the oldest mummified monk in Japan, the mummified body of an extinct species of cat, a human skull, stuffed wolves? You will encounter all these at Saisho-ji Temple.
Saisho-ji Temple Grounds
The Saisho-ji Temple grounds stand high along a forested ridge that runs above the sea in Nagaoka, Niigata, Japan. The day that I visited, the large parking lot was vacant. Tranquil greenery semi circled the ancient wooden buildings. In the sky, three or four crows squawked at a hawk. But the bizarre objects inside the temple grounds and the behavior of the monk at the reception counter contrasted with the idyllic scenery.
A busy monk, dressed in traditional clothing, brusquely took our money for admission while staring into a computer screen and intently typing. He grabbed leaflets from a stack and shoved them at us. "The Temple with Mummy Buddha" was written in big bold font. What is a Mummy Buddha?
The leaflet explains that Mummy Buddha was the bishop of the temple over 650 years ago. He put himself on a fat-eliminating diet of nuts and limited his water intake for years to prevent natural decay after death.
After a period of three thousand days, he ceased eating, stopped drinking, and entered a prepared chamber in the earth somewhere (The monk would not tell us the location) in the nearby mountain where he chanted and rang a bell until dying.
When the chamber became silent, his attendees sealed it to limit oxidation and keep insects from eating the body. Several years later, other monks carried the mummified monk to a tiny compartment in a small wooden building within the temple grounds.
According to the beliefs of his followers, he has been praying for humanity since his death. Bent in a position of prayer and clothed in a formal silk outfit that temple staff change periodically, he will, it is said, continue praying for all of us into the future. You can briefly visit and pray with him, but you cannot take photographs.
Before meeting Mummy Buddha, though, visitors are told to follow a numbered path through the grounds. Mummy Buddha prays and waits for visitors at the fourth stop after the reception desk.
Grisly objects greet you in display rooms on the first stop of the temple tour. Walking through the rooms is like strolling in a museum of the Buddhist macabre. A grey skull rests on a white cotton pillow. Decapitation was the punishment for one man who poked the mummy Buddha hundreds of years ago.
No one, though, punished the Niigata University professors who took x-rays of Mummy Buddha. His framed x-rays are close to the skull. The open-mouthed, grey, rigid body of a mummified cat seems to be silently screaming.
The stuffed bodies of two giant deified Chinese wolves stand frozen in death in a glass case. I wondered if they appreciated being shot and then worshipped. The first stop also displays intricate artworks, such as a wooden folding screen painted with images of peacocks and other gorgeous wildfowl.
Pray For A Lover
Stop number two is a good place to pray for a lover. The leaflet suggests that you write your wishes on a small plaque and leave it on the wall outside the temple building where Aizen Myo-o Buddha, who helps all of us to find harmony, friendship, and love, is enshrined. Proof of our great need for love, stacks of thousands of such plaques hung from the wall.
The third stop is an imposing five-meter-high cast metal statue of the figure of the monk who would become Mummy Buddha. The leaflet directs visitors to sprinkle water over his sandals. Doing so is claimed to benefit our health. He was said to have had very strong legs before starting his mummification process.
The receptionist/monk arrived outside the intricately carved wooden temple building at the appointed time. He explains the viewing rules and turns on the light and sound system. He told us we could not photograph the mummy, but we could photograph the carvings and paintings around us. Then he guided us inside, and he pressed a button on a wall.
A recorded voice, speaking advanced-level Japanese only, taught us about Mummy Buddha. Kneeling on a tatami floor, we could pray with Mummy Buddha as he prayed for us. His face and hands were shrunken and skinny. Skin barely covered bone, and a silken Buddhist ceremonial robe covered his body.
When the recording stopped, we walked outside. I was mesmerized by the intensity of the beliefs that would lead a man to mummify himself. But the high-pitched ringing of cicadas in the humid forest returned me to the reality, or the illusion, of the present.
After praying with a mummy, slowly spending time under the shaded trees between temple buildings was relaxing. Ferns, flowering plants, and bushes grow along the sides of the paths. A thigh-high rock carving of two dosoujin, gods of fertility, embracing lightened the mood. It is a fantastic location for a romantic photograph.
A five-centimeter pure gold Buddha is stored in the main temple which is stop number 5. However, it is only displayed at a special ceremony once every twelve years.
The last attraction is a small ridge outside the temple. I looked down across green slopes, the seaside road, wide sandy beaches, and a vast expanse of the Sea of Japan.
Though we were almost alone on the temple grounds, below us hundreds of beachgoers were swimming, jet skiing, and paragliding. The seaside road leads westward toward hot springs and the famous seafood market of Teradomari, which attracts seafood lovers from all over Japan as well as Tokyo. The other direction leads toward Niigata, a one-hour drive.
Access - Getting to Saishoji Temple
Public transportation is limited in this area. You will need to hire a car or take trains and taxis. Traveling from Tokyo by car will take just under four hours. If you take the Joetsu Shinkansen, get off at Tsubame-Sanjo Station and ride in a taxi for about thirty minutes to reach the temple. Tsubame-Sanjo Station is only 12 minutes on the shinkansen from Niigata Station.
Saisho-ji Temple Contact Information (All in Japanese)
Tel: 0258 75 3441
Fax: 0258 75 2735