Japan is home to thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines too numerous to list. These shrines and temples are renowned by tourists from all over the world, who come to enjoy their serene beauty and cultural heritage. They can be found everywhere, from deep in the remote mountains, to craggy coastlines, to wedged between skyscrapers and crowded shopping streets, bizarrely melding the modern with the ancient. Practically every municipality in Japan has at least one temple or shrine, with historical cities such as Kyoto boasting several thousand.
More than just places of tranquil beauty or places of worship, the shrines and temples of Japan are also often places tasked with the housing of sacred relics. These can be important historical artifacts, irreplaceable national treasure, or priceless items of cultural heritage, yet on occasion there can be far stranger things locked away from the bustling tourists. Some temples and shrines in Japan have become known for harboring the remains of bizarre creatures, monsters, and supposedly long extinct animals, all of which potentially hold great crypozoological significance.
What mysteries can we find past the rock gardens, ornate gates, and within the lacquered wood halls of these ancient temples? Here we will look at some of these cryptid relics that have found their way to Japan’s temples and shrines.
Many of the alleged remains of strange creatures are of cryptids that have strong folkloric ties. One such creature is the legendary Kappa of Japan’s waterways. One of the most well known cryptids of Japan, the Kappa is a mysterious, bipedal water dwelling creature said to inhabit Japan’s rivers and streams. They are typically described as being the size of a child of 6 to 10 years of age and resembling a cross between a turtle, monkey, and lizard. Kappa are often depicted as having a shell on their backs, similar to a turtle’s, and having a beak like mouth. Some reports have made mention of patchy, scraggly hair covering the body.
Several temples in Japan are purported to have the remains of Kappa. Zuiryūji temple in Osaka, Japan, is one such place, thought to have a full Kappa mummy which it reportedly came into its possession in 1682. The mummy is around 70 centimeters long and looks vaguely humanoid. It has thin arms, a mouth full of needle like teeth, and a crown of scraggly hair atop its head. The alleged Kappa is not on public display, and it is not uncommon to have requests to view it denied.
Another temple somewhat well-known for its Kappa remains is Sogen-ji, located in the Asakusa area of Tokyo, a popular and crowded area known for its various temples and historical attractions that attract droves of tourists from all over the world. The area around Sogen-ji is steeped in Kappa lore, and is said to have once been infested by the creatures. Kappa were known to be mischievous and even downright hostile on occasion, so the temple is said to have been built to appease them. Sogen-ji is so entwined with Kappa folklore that it is often referred to as “Kappa Dera,” or “Kappa Temple.”
Within Sosen-ji’s grounds one can find statues, murals, and elaborate drawings of Kappa, as well as piles of cucumber, said to be the Kappa’s favorite food, left as offerings by guests. Of course the main attraction is the supposed Kappa hand, encased in glass within one of the temple’s halls. The hand is mummified and cut off at the wrist, with bone exposed. The hand has long, bony fingers that end in claws. It is not clear what the exact origins of the hand are, and it is often dismissed as a mere mummified monkey hand, yet since no one is allowed to handle the relic it is hard to say for sure.
Another area with strong Kappa lore is the city of Tono, located in Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan. Like the Sosen-ji temple area, Tono has long been said to be inhabited by Kappa and it is thought they still can be found in the area to this day. The city boasts a few temples purported to be in the possession of various mummified Kappa remains, some that are reportedly hundreds of years old.
Other creatures well known from Japanese folklore are the Tengu and Raijū. The Tengu are legendary winged, avian humanoids that were seen as protectors of the mountains. The creatures were often sighted in feudal Japan, where they were seen as almost godlike entities with magical powers such as telepathy and shape shifting. Many people of the time considered the Tengu to be very real, and shogun were even said to have the creatures moved out of areas before important visits due to their often mischievous or aggressive behavior.
In addition to such stories, there are various relics concerning Tengu contained within temples. There is a scroll at a temple in Shizuoka prefecture which allegedly contains a written apology penned by a Tengu. It is told that the creature was captured in the 17th century by the high priest of the temple and forced to write the apology after harassing travelers in the area.
The Hachinohe Museum in Aomori prefecture houses the alleged mummified remains of a Tengu. The skull of these remains is humanoid, while the body is covered with feathers and the feet are like that of a bird. Another temple in Saitama prefecture keeps what is said to be the talon of a Tengu, while still another supposedly has the beaked skull of one.
Another creature of legend with such remains is the Raijū, or literally “Thunder Beast,” who were said to be the mighty servants of the Shinto god of thunder. These creatures were most often described as looking something like a badger, weasel, cat, or fox, although they were sometimes said to look like a wolf or monkey as well, often with wings or multiple tails. They are quite often depicted as being wreathed in crackling lightning, and their voices were the boom of thunder. During storms, these creatures would become very agitated, frantically dashing about and leaping from tree to tree, tearing up the bark in the process with their formidable claws. In Japanese folklore, it was said that trees scored by lighting had been the work of Raijū claws. They were also known to swoop down and slash at passerby.
Occasionally living specimens were captured and displayed. One such Raijū allegedly fell into a well in Izumo province, where it became hopelessly entangled in ropes and was captured alive. The creature was subsequently exhibited within a cage of brass in the court of the Tenjin temple.
The animal was said to resemble a badger, yet with a longer tail and oversized claws. When the weather was clear, the Raijū was quite docile, sleeping quietly in its cage most of the time. However, during storms it would become a ferocious, hissing beast, and its eyes were said to flicker and flash as if filled with lightning. The creature refused to eat or drink during its captivity and eventually died. Its body is said to have been preserved and kept on the premises for some time before they were reportedly destroyed in a fire.
Besides this account of a living specimen, there are some other temples said to have the mummified remains of Raijū. One such mummy is kept at Yuzanji temple in Iwate prefecture. The mummy looks very much like a cat, only misshapen and with longer legs. It was allegedly received in the 1960s as a donation from a parishioner, although the exact origin of the mummy is not known. Another similar looking Raijū mummy is kept at Saishoji temple in Niigata prefecture.
Another bizarre relic is the teeth of a supposed sea serpent kept at a temple along the rugged coast of Western Japan. Legend has it that a priest was strolling along the beach contemplating matters of faith when he came across a large, terrifying sea creature, described as “a dragon,” washed up on the beach. The priest took this as a sign of sorts, and wanted to acquire the beast for the temple, yet it was much too large to take back with him so he removed some of the teeth instead. The priest then took his prize back to the temple where the “dragon teeth” supposedly remain to this day, although apparently not available for viewing by the public.
Still other temples and shrines in Japan hold the remains of other very famous Japanese cryptids. One temple in Okayama prefecture has what is said to be a preserved specimen of a tsuchinoko, which is a type of cryptid snake believed to inhabit the remote mountains of Japan. The tsuchinoko resembles a viper, but with a bulging body thicker than the head. It is reported to make a wide range of vocalizations and is known for its unusual methods of locomotion, such as jumping or even rolling along like a wheel. It is such a popular cryptid in Japan that some rural areas hold regular tsuchinoko hunts and offer sizeable rewards for a specimen.
Another cryptid in Japan is a creature that actually is known to have existed. The supposedly extinct Honshu wolf was the world’s smallest species of wolf, standing just a little over a foot at the shoulder. They were once common throughout their former range of Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku Islands, and were often worshipped as forest protectors. Sadly, their numbers declined due to rabies and hunting brought upon by changing attitudes towards the wolves. The last Honshu wolf is widely believed to have died in 1905, although they are still reportedly sighted in many isolated regions to this day.
However, in 1994, one shrine in Tottori prefecture was found to possess a specimen of the Honshu wolf that is thought to have possibly died as recently as the 1950s. If these remains are the real deal, then it would significantly push back the accepted extinction date and give more fuel to the idea that the wolves could still survive somewhere in the mountains of Japan. Unfortunately, the remains are considered sacred by the shrine, and as such requests to test them have been denied.
Even more remains can be found throughout the temples and shrines of Japan. Mermaids, demons, and two-headed monsters also count among some of the more fantastical and bizarre examples of these.
What all of these cases have in common is that they offer the tantalizing possibility of something all cryptozoologists strive for, which is concrete physical evidence. What would we find if we were to be allowed access to these remains with our modern DNA testing techniques? Would we find the proof we are looking for, or the creative taxidermy many claim these remains really are? Would we not learn something either way?
Unfortunately, these remains are considered sacred relics and not available for our attempts at answers. Many of them are locked away and not even available for viewing, let alone proper scientific analysis. As much as we would like to crack open these mysteries and pull away the curtains of uncertainty, it seems that some mysteries will forever be out of our grasp. In the case of these mysterious temples of Japan, it seems that we must resign ourselves to being satisfied with their architectural magnificence and historical value, while only allowing our curiosity to approach further as we wonder at and ponder what mysteries may lie beyond their doors.