One thousand days of mountain walking: The "Marathon Monks" of Mt. Hiei

A gyoja ascetic dresses for the Kaihogyo 1,000-day devotional mountain circuit walk.
A gyoja ascetic dresses for the Kaihogyo 1,000-day devotional mountain circuit walk.

千日回峰行:京都大廻り
I didn’t write about it here, because I’m not allowed to take pictures, but last year I was invited to participate in supporting the monk Hoshino Endo as he performed 100 straight nights of traversing 40 kilometers of mountain trails (days 701-800) in a tradition that goes back more than 1,000 years on Mt. Hiei in Kyoto: the Sen-nichi kaihougyo, the 1,000-day devotional circuit. I was only able to get up in the middle of the night and get out to Sekizan-zen-in Temple a few times for Endo’s 3 a.m. appearance, but it was enough so that I am on their official list of supporters now. So, recently, I received a notice that he would be doing the 801-900 circuit this year, the Kyoto o-mawari. This adds up to about 60 kilometers per day, the longest , Coming down the mountain and circling Kyoto clockwise one night, and the next day going around the other way and climbing back up.

That began Saturday. As soon as he finishes 100 straight days and nights of 60km hikes, without a day of rest, he will begin the final 100 days, leaving the mountaintop temple at 1 a.m. and returning at dawn, a comparatively short 15 km of mountain trails. The cliche “Failure is not an option” applies with chilling accuracy to the Kaihogyo: The monk, called a gyoja, carries a knife and rope within his pristine white robe to take his life if injury, illness or doubt won’t let him continue.

I didn’t write about it here, because I’m not allowed to take pictures, but last year I was invited to participate in supporting the monk Hoshino Endo as he performed 100 straight nights of traversing 40 kilometers of mountain trails (days 701-800) in a tradition that goes back more than 1,000 years on Mt. Hiei in Kyoto: the Sen-nichi kaihougyo, the 1,000-day devotional circuit. I was only able to get up in the middle of the night and get out to Sekizan-zen-in Temple a few times for Endo’s 3 a.m. appearance, but it was enough so that I am on their official list of supporters now. So, recently, I received a notice that he would be doing the 801-900 circuit this year, the Kyoto o-mawari, the “Great Circuit of Kyoto.” This adds up to about 60 kilometers per day, the longest of the routes, Coming down the mountain and circling Kyoto clockwise one night, and the next day going around the other way and climbing back up.

Witnessing, and actually participating in the ritual last year, was an amazing experience. There is an official support group called the Kyoto Sokusho Ko, which means “obstacle-removing society.” They help the gyoja continue on his path unobstructed when he must descend the mountain and venture into Kyoto neighborhoods for the 40 km Sekizan Temple route (days 701-800). Sekizan-zen-in Temple is very close to my home, and my familiarity helped me get an invitation to walk with the gyoja for that 100-day stage, which begins March 28. I left home after 2 a.m. and met up with the others, in anticipation of Endo’s appearance at about 3 a.m.

There were usually about 5-7 supporters on the nights I went. Three of them were there every time, and I suspect that the two who were not temple staff were actual members of the Sokusho ko, although I have not asked yet. This fraternal organization is very serious, and members must be very committed. They shun publicity. One older lady told me she came every night.

To see the gyoja appear out of the darkness is to witness something unforgettable, for he wears a stark white robe over legs bound in white linen, with roughly woven straw sandals, a reed boat of a hat, and carries a lantern with a candle to guide his way. He appears some 300 meters or so away, rounding a bend in the mountain trail off to the left of the lower gate of Sekizan-zen-in, and his white form, dimly lit by the candle,  materializes slowly. It is exacly as you might imagine encountering a ghost in the woods.

The popular term “marathon monk” is not really accurate, as the kaihogyo is not a marathon, and the monk does not run. He is on a circuit of giving prayers at literally hundreds of spots on his route, each with it’s own ritual gestures and chants. He carries a secret book with the details of each incantation. though with such a rigorous routine he soon has it memorized. Not a  run, but an impressively fast and easy gait. I have been some distance up that trail, and it was hard, very hard. Not for the monk, whose body has beenwell-honed by the ordeal. It was remarkable that on each of the nights I saw him, even in rain, there was not a speck of dirt or mud to be found on his garment.

And there was no sign in his face that anything about this was difficult. His visage was peaceful, energetic, and kindly.

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