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Girljin in Japan By Rachel Tranter Davies
The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei
Mount Hiei, known as the Mother Mountain, is famous for its stunning scenery, fragrant cedars and spectacular temple complexes. What's even more impressive and for some reason often overlooked, are her holy inhabitants whose physical and spiritual endurance is simply awe-inspiring.

Sprawled across Mt. Hiei is the magnificent Enryaku-ji Temple, headquarters of the Tendai school of Buddhism, and birthplace of a particular journey on the quest for enlightenment. Legend has it that the monks of Mt. Hiei run 1,000 marathons in about 1,000 days during an arduous seven-year pilgrimage, now known as the practice of Kaihogyo.

Kaihogyo began in the 9th century. Mt. Hiei's Gyoja sect of Tendai monks initially practiced Kaihogyo by living austere lives in the mountain, embarking on ascetic challenges of selfless service and devotion in order to achieve enlightenment in one's current lifetime, as opposed to traditional Buddhist beliefs that enlightenment is a process which can be achieved only over several lifetimes through the process of reincarnation.

Over the years, these practices were taken up by others of Enryakuji's monks, who have adapted and expanded their journeys on the path to enlightenment so becoming the elaborate and highly structured seven-year system of Kaihogyo that is followed today.

It is rare that a monk embarks on this challenge, which involves walking increasing distances over 1,000 days, divided into 100-day chunks, and rarer still that it is completed. The mammoth task begins with the monk running 30 km each day for the first 300 days of the pilgrimage. In the 4th and 5th year, they make 30 km each day for 200 days in each year.

Upon completion of the 5th year, the monk must, as the hardest fulfillment - or almost sounds impossible to carry out as a human beings - of the challenge, spend nine days of fasting, known as the doiri, in which he must abstain from food, water, and sleep, the whole time in a state of meditation and continuous recitation of Buddhist chants. The purpose of the doiri is to bring the monk face-to-face with death; only then will he attain enlightenment.

Only the monk who accomplishes the hard doiri can move on to the sixth year of the Kaihogyo, in which the length of the run increases to 60 km for 100 days before finally, in the seventh year, he must run for another gruelling 100 consecutive days, upping the distance to 84 km, the length of more than two marathons.

The idea behind the constant movement is to exhaust the mind, the body, everything, until nothing is left. Along the way, each day the monk needs to stop at over 260 temple halls and temples. The running is a way to get from one to the other. Sometimes practitioners will walk, as long as the distances are covered in the allocated time.

The monks run in straw sandals, over rough mountain paths through all seasons. They wear white burial robes to symbolize their acceptance of death, carrying with them a hat, made from woven strips of Japanese cedar, on which both sides are rolled to form long tubes either side of the crown.

Until they have completed their first 300 days, practitioners carry the hat under their left arm and are only permitted to wear it during rain. Rumour has it that they carry a rope and knife tied around their waists; tools for the monk to end his life if he fails at any point to complete the Kaihogyo, something that is more symbolic than practical in modern times.

Unsurprisingly, in the past 130 years, only 51 men have completed this gargantuan challenge (most recently in September 2017 by Kogen Kamabori, only the fourteenth since World War 2).

Rachel is a food, drink and travel writer. Originally from England, she recently relocated to Japan and is now finding her feet in Kyoto. You can find her blogging tweeting and instagramming her experiences at Girljin in Japan.