The Search for the Living Dead: Part 2

Sakata – Yunohama

70 miles


‘I saw the mummy when I was a boy,’ declared Akira.

‘What???’ I said, nearly spitting my marmalade toast into his face. ‘Doko?’ where?

‘It was a long time ago,’ he said standing up and collecting our plates. And that was it, I swear he could tell that I was obviously in the midst of ‘Mummy Fever’ and he was clearly just toying with my emotions, using his inch perfect Japanese etiquette, as some form of torment. And with him clearing the plates it was obviously conversation over; to ask again would have been considered a heathen act and massively uncouth. I’d blown it. Why he had chosen now over breakfast to confess I shall never know. Well, nevertheless, I hadn’t totally failed yet, I still had a couple of cards to play.


Saying farewell to Akira, I headed south through the Shōnai plain to Tsuruoka; a similar city to Sakata, specialising in agriculture, fishing and light manufacturing. As the prefecture’s second largest city, it was only just a little bit more active than Sakata, yet would it wield me a member of the living dead? I pulled out a shabby piece of paper with the 3 sights in Yamagata where I might find the much fabled Living Buddhas.

Living Dead Dudes of Yamagata

  1. Kaiko-ji Temple, Sakata
  2. Nangaku-ji Temple, Tsuruoka
  3. Dainichi-bo Temple, Dewa Sanzen


Abusing free Wi-Fi from 7-Eleven, I tracked down the Nangaku-ji Temple. Despite being 30-metres from a main road, it was though solemnly quiet. A fusion of shiny black and grey obelisk shaped pillars filled a small cemetery plot just before a confined red and white temple. I parked my bike against the wall of the compound and gingerly walked through the gates of the cemetery, again having that feeling that I was being watched by someone… or something. I climbed a short flight of steps to get to the temple’s entrance, before peering through a transparent screen at an empty altar. Maybe the mummy was out back somewhere, undergoing maintenance such as the likes of Lenin, Chairman Mao and Ho Chi Minh? To the right of the staircase, I noticed a door, and to the right of that a doorbell. HmmDo I? Don’t I? I thought fleetingly before pressing the button, a little alarmed by my own spontaneous eagerness. Yet no answer came. I then looked at the door, it was a sliding door. Hmm…Do I? Don’t I? ‘NO!’ I soliloquized, I don’t, that’s just plain rude. Agent Fox Mulder most definitely would’ve snuck in and started skulking around like a lout, but then Fox Mulder had gunny; I only had a puncture repair kit.

The odds were stacked against me. Yet my gut told that in the confines of this unsuspecting temple, a mummy sat timelessly waiting.

Giving up, I returned to my bike, noticing from a small window of an apartment building – adjacent the temple complex – an elderly lady staring at me. I felt somehow that she’d always been watching. I smiled at her and nodded a greeting, but she just continued to stare. A little freaked out, I pulled out and updated my mummy list.

Living Dead Dudes of Yamagata

  1. Kaiko-ji Temple, Sakata
  2. Nangaku-ji Temple, Tsuruoka
  3. Dainichi-bo Temple, Dewa Sanzen


I was now going to have to do this the hard way. Folding the list and returning it to my front pannier, I looked back at the elderly lady, but she was gone. I pressed on east and back into the sacred mountains, feeling like a failure.


The ascent into the mountains of the Dewa Sanzen was a steady one; the Akagawa River crafting its way through the rugged terrain would never stray far from my line of sight. When a sign for the Dainichi-bo Temple surfaced I left the main road to Yamagata City and was thrown into a steep and narrow road that wound its way up onto the north-western flanks of Mt. Yudono. A small hamlet unveiled itself to me, amongst a cluster of surrounding rice paddies. Signs for the temple were a little thin on the ground, but following the course of the ever steep and climbing road, I eventually stumbled across a very auspicious looking torii gate. It was bland in comparison to many of the touristic torii gates one might find around Japan; yet its natural elegance was suggestive of promise.




Leaving my bike outside the holy compound, I ventured through the torii gateway and along a compact path, which was lined with a selection of rich smelling flora. At the end of the path, a small flight of steps led me to a tranquil looking temple. Silence greeted me, as expected, but then so did the gentle face of a monk. I enquired as to whether this was the Dainichi-bo Temple and he confirmed that it was and that the cost of entry was 500 Yen. I coughed up some Yen as another more elderly monk appeared and ushered me into the temple. I took off my shoes and entered a dimly lit prayer hall, was given a small stool to sit upon and then I was asked if I spoke any Japanese. I stated, ‘a little’. He thanked me and then shuffled out of the room. The initial monk who had claimed my 500 Yen, then appeared behind a transparent shoji screen and sat before a shrine of gold, money, fruits and ancient artefacts. I scanned the room profusely for mummies. No such luck. The 500 Yen monk then hit a small brass gong, before beginning to recite a mantra. This continued for some time, before he suddenly leapt up and slung the shoji doors wide open. Grabbing a pole with what looked like the head of a massive Chrysanthemum on the end of it, he began to flail it around excitedly in a slightly tantric manner. I noticed that his eyes were closed, so I decided to do the same. Upon doing so, I then heard his feet stomping across the tatami floor towards me. Quickly opening one eye, I saw that the Chrysanthemum head was being whisked directly into my face, its petals whipping my jowls. I was being blessed. This was unexpected and different, and most certainly a very bizarre feeling. Alone and some 5,715 miles away from home – in the remote mountains of Yamagata Prefecture – I was receiving the blessing of a Shugendō monk, an experience that I found extreme comfort in. Stopping suddenly, the monk shimmied back to the shrine. Clapping twice and then taking a deep bow to the Gods, he ended the service. I was confused, but was swiftly shoved to one side as the elderly monk reappeared to my left. He began to speak very fast, losing me from the outset. I nodded my head in false understanding and looked sincerely impressed by what he was saying. It was only when I caught wind of the words ‘Sokushinbutsu’ and ‘Mitai’ that I found myself suddenly lighting up.

Hai, hai, mitai!’ Yes, yes, I want to see!

I tried my best not to sound too desperate, but failed miserably. A smile then spread across the monk’s face; he knew my game. It was time for the headliner.

I was led into a side-room, away from the central shrine, and my eyes became immediately fixated upon Daijuku Bosatsu Shinnyokai Shonin – a monk who in his 96th year on Earth, left his mortal body behind after a lifetime of extreme penance.

The elderly monk accompanying me spoke about the life of his fellow monk; his voice soon petering off into a white noise as I observed the dead guy in the glass box. Sat in the lotus position, he was fitted in orange garbs and a glossy pointed hat. His skeletal features had a darkened and waxy glow, his skull sunk heavily upon his chest with eyes fixed upon a set of prayer beads that were draped around his shrivelled hands. He’d been sitting here like this since 1784 as an act of compassion towards a famine that was at the time ravaging central Honshū, ultimately leading to the deaths of over a million people.

I began to feel a little sad, is this what he really wanted? Eternity in a box and to be ogled by sweaty cyclists from the other side of the planet? Or was I missing the spiritual point? Having made the ultimate sacrifice in his mortal life, was he now living the perfect nirvana as a so called ‘Living Buddha’? I truly hoped so.

Leaving the temple, I felt slightly entranced by my experience. Sitting on a bench in the temple’s grounds with a can of Coca-Cola from a very un-Buddhist like vending machine, I contemplated my day’s finds. Shinnyokai Shonin had made me sweat to find him, but in doing so he had given me a very surreal moment in my life. Maybe that was what he wanted.



Returning to my bike, I continued east to Yamagata City; all visions of reaching the city swiftly dashed after being informed by a maintenance crew that the road ahead was closed. Funnily enough, I wasn’t too phased by the fact that I wasn’t able to venture any further up into the mountains, I’d achieved everything I’d set out to do in the prefecture and was ready to take on the next challenge of Niigata. I freewheeled most of the way back down the slopes of Mt. Yudono and returned to Tsuruoka.



On the coast I found Yunohama, a tranquil hot spring retreat just west of the city. I made camp under a picnic shelter, just a few yards from the beach. Walking close to the water’s edge, I took a seat on the sand, before pulling out my scraggily list of the dead.

Living Dead Dudes of Yamagata

  1. Kaiko-ji Temple, Sakata
  2. Nangaku-ji Temple, Tsuruoka
  3. Dainichi-bo Temple, Dewa Sanzen ✓

I felt a cheeky smile begin to wash over my features. It was then that a seagull passed over and decided to casually defecate upon my head.

I was truly blessed.


Dates: 1/07/2014 – 3/07/2014

Total miles traversed: 2,881 miles

Total time in the saddle: 292 hours and 34 minutes


‘Tokyo to Tokyo – A Cycling Adventure around Japan.’

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Enjoy the ride.



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