In remote locations, far from the eyes of foreign tourists, Shinto temples across Japan claim to house the ancient, mummified remains of everything from ogres to mermaids. These artifacts are commonly believed to be elaborate pieces of faux-taxidermy created for entertainment purposes at Edo Period carnivals called Misemonos. The proceeds of these carnivals often benefited local shrines, and the mummies were either presented alongside or later associated with myths that represented local beliefs and practices. Now, hundreds of years later, they stand out as some of the most unusual pieces of cultural history in the world. Here are some examples of mythical mummified creatures—and where they can be found.
1. OGRES (ONI)
Ogres, or oni, are one of the most common figures in Shinto folklore. While most of them live in the netherworld, a few of these brightly colored brutes end up wandering the Earth doing all kinds of terrible things like eating people. One ogre may have bitten off more than he could chew when he visited the town of Naruto—at least that's what we can guess based on the remains at Kikotsuji Temple. Inside is a golden shrine that holds a few thumb-sized ogre molars and a bulbous horn.
The remains of a second ogre can be found in the town of Usa, near the Jyuppouzan Daijyoin temple complex. A set of 108 stairs leads to an entire mummified body, complete with horns and three-fingered hands. No one knows for sure how old the specimen is, but for many generations, it was in the possession of a noble family—until the patriarch fell ill in 1925. Believing himself to be cursed by the ogre heirloom, he handed the mummy over to the local temple, after which he reportedly made a complete recovery.
Ushi-Oni is a term that's come to encompass any supernatural creature with the head of an ox; the most common depictions feature giant, bipedal flying squirrels. If you've never had the opportunity to see one, look no further than Negoro-ji, a temple near the town of Iwade. Not only is there a statue of a googly-eyed, dancing ushi-oni outside—the inside houses the horns of one that, according to legend, was slain 400 years ago by a famous archer, Yamada Kurando Takakiyois.
The remains of another ushi-oni are housed in the city of Kurume's Ishishikakizan Kannonji temple. This one was vanquished by a priest named Konko Fujinori Konnon using only the power of prayer. According to the temple, the creature’s foot, now mummified, has been in their possession for the nearly 1000 years since its disembodiment.
Almost everyone is familiar with the Disney cartoon The Little Mermaid, where Ariel gives up her life in the sea to become human. But in the Japanese mermaid tale of happyaku bikuni, things turn out a bit differently, with the mermaid giving up her life to become ... dinner.
The mummified remains of a mermaid that managed to avoid the dinner plate can be found in a little temple outside Hashimoto. The creature—which is said to have been caught a thousand years ago in a local river and brought to the temple—is not likely to get a kiss from a Disney prince: Its grotesque face is captured in the middle of a terrifying scream.
A second mermaid mummy can be found in the Hachinohe City Museum. It has the unique distinction of having not one, but two screaming faces on a single head. The museum also claims to possess the remains of another supernatural creature, the tengu.
The tengu varies in appearance but is most famously some combination of a human and a crow. The creatures have a nasty reputation—they’re known for carrying people off into the sky, after which they’ll leave them at the top of mountains or drop them to their doom. The Wakayama Prefectural Museum of History and Folklore has an entire mummified tengu, its withered body propped up by a wooden crutch.
The long-beaked skull of another, larger tengu can be found in the city of Ibaraki at Sōji-ji temple. Even more impressive may be the mummy on display next to the skull—the contorted body of a storm spirit, the Raiju.
Raiju are said to be the embodiment of a storm: They strike the earth, tear through trees, and set fields on fire when they're angered. Though descriptions of their appearance vary quite a bit in Shinto folklore, all of the mummified examples appear to be feline. In the town of Nagoka, the treasury of Saishō-ji temple displays the dried up husk of a raiju stretched out among other ancient relics. Another raiju, very similar in appearance, is nestled in an ornate wooden box in Iwate-ji Temple in the town of Hanamaki.
The kudan is a creature that has the body of a cow and the face of a human. These creatures (which probably originate from real calves born with genetic defects) live only a few weeks—and, according to legend, they're able to foretell the future. While there are many historical accounts of mummified kudan, the only remaining example is in the private collection of Chan Kihon Kihara, a self-described “mystery collector” who loans it to museums from time to time.
Like their Chinese counterparts, Japanese dragons are wingless, flying serpents with four clawed feet. The Zuiryūzan Hōun-ji temple, located outside the town of Chichibu, claims to have discovered a dragon's bottom jaw on its grounds several centuries ago.
In Osaka, the mummified remains of an entire dragon can be found at Ruilong Temple. Legend has it that the dragon was purchased by a Japanese general, Akizawa, from a Chinese farmer who witnessed the creature dying, bashed it with a stick, stuffed it in a sack and smuggled it to Japan. This temple also has a mummified mermaid as well as one of the most popular Japanese supernatural creatures, the kappa.
Kappa—which are frequently depicted as bipedal turtles from Shinto folklore that drag people into rivers and lakes—are often blamed for drownings. To stay in their good graces, people leave offerings of the creature’s favorite food: cucumbers. One popular place to leave an offering is Sogenji, a kappa-themed temple in the Kappabashi-dori neighborhood of Tokyo. Inside the temple is a large collection of kappa memorabilia, from ancient scrolls to souvenir coffee mugs—and, inside a wooden box, one kappa's mummified hand.
Original illustration by Zardulu
A more complete set of kappa remains is on display in the town of Imari at Matsuuraichi Shuzo Sake Brewery. A carpenter claimed to have found the mummy while doing renovations on the building in the 1960s. The owner, recognizing the mummy’s cultural significance, turned it into a tourist attraction and adopted it as a symbol of his company. Cheers!