Set to go into service next year carrying passengers from downtown Kyoto to Buddhist mountain temples.
In the previous article The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei: Better than Olympic Athletes? Part I, I explain the sennichi kaihogyo, or 1,000 Day Challenge, in which the Tendai Buddhist monks of Mt. Hiei, sometimes referred to as the “marathon monks,” walk the equivalent of one time around the earth–at the end of which they become living Buddhas.
In Part II, I trace the monks’ steps on the 30 km pilgrimage route, or gyoja michi, which passes through the sacred mountains and forests near the temple complex of Enryakuji. It’s a rigorous course that winds through the mountains, down into the town of Sakamoto, taking them past more than 250 spiritual places. This is the route they circumambulate for days on end over a seven-year period. For tips on the meaning behind the route, be sure to read Part I before continuing!
Rather than walking the course, I decided to run it. Running pilgrimages is a hobby of mine and I find it is a great way to combine the physical with the metaphysical. It brings joy to my runs and this fulfillment keeps the challenge. If you’re a skier, you’re always looking for more mountains. Sky divers jump at different locations. Runners look for new paths and new trails give running purpose. Leave it to your RocketNews24 running reporter to tackle the famed gyoja michi and reveal its intricacies.
I figured that running the 30-km course through the mountains would take the better part of a day. There is no map and from what I have read, Mt. Hiei can be fickle weather-wise. It has snow much of the winter and spring and there are bears. In June, when the weather was perfect, I set out with a small backpack fitted with a water bladder, some medical accoutrements and an extra pair of socks inside (for those inevitable foot and toe problems), plus an ultra light sleeping bag, just in case I got lost and had to spend the night in the forest (been there, done that!).
Mt. Hiei, which straddles Kyoto and Shiga prefectures, is home to a huge temple complex called Enryakuji. The foothills of Mt. Hiei border Kyoto City’s northeast. This group of Buddhist temples is home to an eclectic group of Tendai-shu monks, dubbed the “marathon monks” for their amazing physical feats. Not all Enryakuji monks take part, mind you, as one must get special permission to engage in what is called one of the most rigorous athletic and spiritual challenges on the planet.
During the sennichi kaihogyo, or Thousand Day Challenge, the monks venerate Fudo-myo-o, the god at the center of worship in the Tendai sect. Over a seven-year training period, the monk, called a gyoja, makes a pilgrimage to over 250 sites on Mt. Hiei, one of the top three sacred spots in Japan. At the end of the challenge, he will have walked far enough to have circled the globe once. As if this were not enough to please their god, he also takes part in a fast for nine days in which he can not eat, drink or sleep. So arduous is the sennichi kaihogyo that just over 5o monks have accomplished the challenge since records started being kept back in 1585. Indeed, many monks have died en route to this ultimate quest for enlightenment.