My Marathon Monk

Kaihogyo

Three years ago I read a book titled “The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei” by John Stevens.  The book focuses on the Tendai Buddhist monks who complete Kaihōgyō, 1,000 days of long distance walking, meditation, and prayer over a 7-year period.  Kaihōgyō is by far more demanding than any modern-day athletic endurance event, so demanding that the monks are required to carry a knife and rope to kill themselves if they fail.  Since 1585 when they started keeping records only about 52 monks have successfully completed Kaihōgyō (one monk has completed Kaihōgyō twice!).  Their motivation to attempt such a grueling feat is to achieve enlightenment and become a living Buddha.  I was so fascinated by the marathon monks that I wrote one of my early blog posts about them.  I have wanted to visit Mount Hiei and the monastery where they live since I read the book.  I didn’t have time to travel there in 2015 when I ran the Tokyo Marathon.  Last week I returned to Japan and visiting the monastery on Mount Hiei was at the top of my list of things to see.  Little did I know I was going to see a lot more.

Mount Hiei is over 2700 feet high and straddles two prefectures – Kyoto Prefecture and Shiga Prefecture.  It is a beautiful mountain, covered in trees and flowers, and home to a wide array of wildlife.  The monastery on Mount Hiei was founded 1200 years ago and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

View of Kyoto from the ropeway to Mt Hiei

Traveling to Mount Hiei from Kyoto was a bit of an adventure. I hired a Japanese guide, Maki, to help me get there.  We went by cab to a train station where we took a train out of Kyoto.  Then we transferred to a cable car followed by a ride on a ropeway (an aerial tram) and, after a short of walk, boarded a bus for the last part of the trip to the Mount Hiei monastery.  Along the way we were treated to breathtaking views of Kyoto, Lake Biwa, and Lake Shiga.  I even saw deer grazing along the cable car tracks.

Bell tower – visitors are permitted to ring the bell

As we walked around the monastery complex, Maki explained the history and significance of each building.  There were temples and shrines of all sizes, though the main temple, Enryaku-ji, was by far the most impressive.  Walking around the complex was not an easy stroll.  It was more like a stair master workout – between each of the buildings, we were going up and down very steep stairs.

Maki mentioned there is currently a monk in the midst of Kaihōgyō.  She lives along the route that the monk takes into Kyoto to visit the temples and shrines there.  Her mother has seen the monk on his walks.  I was thrilled to visit Mount Hiei but the thought of possibly seeing a marathon monk was incredible.  It is not something that happens every day.  Maki found out when the monk would be passing through Kyoto the next day.  He would be stopping at one of the temples I planned to visit, the Kiyomizudera Temple.  I decided to time my visit there so that I could see him.

My Japanese guide for the next day, Miho, was very agreeable to helping me see the monk.  We arrived at a location we expected the monk to pass on his way to the Kiyiomizudera Temple.  Miho checked with the surrounding shopkeepers.  One confirmed the monk would be coming past where we were.  After waiting nearly 45 minutes in the hot sun, we decided to keep making our way up the hill to the temple.  We stopped again halfway up where two roads intersected.  We weren’t sure which road the monk would take to the temple.  Another shopkeeper there assured us the monk came this way and had not yet passed by.  Again we waited.  Unfortunately marathon monks don’t wear tracking devices like runners do in races.  I had no idea where the monk was or when he would come.  I decided I was not going to see the marathon monk and we resumed our walk up the hill to the Kiyiomizudera Temple.

The monk passed so quickly that I was unable to get a picture of him. This photo was displayed in the cable car station on Mount Hiei.

There were hundreds of tourists around the temple grounds.  Kyoto is one of the top destinations in Japan for both Japanese and foreign tourists, and Kiyiomizudera Temple is one of the most visited sites. We stopped at several shrines and smaller temples as Miho explained the significance of each.  Finally we reached the main temple,  Kiyiomizudera Temple.   As we stopped to look at a Buddha who protects businesses, there was a flurry of activity behind me.  I was pushed aside by group of 10-12 men who were surrounding the man I recognized immediately as the marathon monk.  The group stopped in front of another Buddha where the monk knelt and began a chant.  After about 2 minutes, he got back up and continued on his way, still surrounded by the men who cleared a path through the crowd of tourists.  He moved swiftly and quietly, except for the rhythmic sound of his wood walking stick hitting the ground.  I was so amazed that for several minutes I could not speak.  I had never expected to be able to see a monk in the middle of one of his “marathons”.  It was a magical moment, one that I will never forget.

That evening I enjoyed dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant with low tables and mats covering the floor.  A Geisha in training was entertaining us during the meal.  I spoke to her through a translator about seeing the marathon monk.  We started to talk about my own running activities, including the 2015 Tokyo Marathon.  The Geisha, it turns out, is training to run the Honolulu Marathon as preparation to run the Kyoto Marathon.  It seems as if I can’t escape running even when I take a trip that doesn’t include a race of my own.

When I got back home, I was able to find out more about the current marathon monk, Kogen Kamahori.  He is nearing the end of his Kaihōgyō and expects to be finished this fall.  In 2015 Kamahori completed doiri, 9-days without food, water, or sleep, during Year 5 of his Kaihōgyō .  (Doiri translates to “living death”.  In fact, many monks have died during doiri.)  There were several news stories about him when he finished.

For anyone who wants to experience some of a marathon monk’s course on Mount Hiei, there is the Mount Hiei International Trail Run.  Runners can choose to run either 50 miles (with 5500 meters vertical) or 50 km (with 3700 meters vertical).  After I walked a bit on Mount Hiei, I can tell you that it would a challenging race.  (Here is a link to an interesting blog post by someone who completed the 2016 race:  http://alpine-works.com/2016/06/mt-hiei-50k-international-trail-run/.)  Runners have to be able to follow the whole trail without getting lost (even marathon monks sometimes get lost and they live there).  Among the equipment the runners must carry is bear bells.  I was tempted to take up ultra running so I could enter this race but common sense tells me this is a race for stronger runners than me.  Instead of running the ultra, I would be happy to return to Mount Hiei and hike down one of the trails from the top.  I can’t imagine what I would see if I did that!

Documentary Educational Resources put together a fascinating film about the marathon monks.  Here is a preview of the film.

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Running, Raptors, and a Rodeo

Vacation Races is a terrific organization that puts on races near national parks.  It is a wonderful way to combine running a race with a visit to a national park.  In 2015 I ran their Rocky Mountain Half Marathon and in 2016 I ran their Zion Half Marathon.  Both races were challenging but memorable.  Last weekend I traveled to Jackson, Wyoming to run my third Vacation Races half marathon outside Grand Teton National Park.  The race was as enjoyable as the others.

One of the Grand Teton peaks

I arrived in Jackson a few days early so that I could get acclimated to the higher elevation.  I toured Grand Teton National Park, hiking some of the trails to shake out my legs.  The Grand Teton scenery is incredibly beautiful with snow-covered mountains peeking out behind the clouds.  As I walked up the trails near Signal Mountain, I was amazed by the wild flowers and the intense smell of pine trees.  There wasn’t any noise from traffic, just the sounds of birds and the wind rustling through the aspen trees.  It was a big change from life back on the East Coast.

Each of the four entrances to the Jackson Town Square has an arch made from antlers

Jackson is a fascinating old Western town.  None of the buildings is over 3 stories high; the majority are only 2 stories.  The raised sidewalks are made of wood.  The only thing missing from the streetscape is hitching posts for horses.  Throughout the town there are bronze sculptures of historical figures, cowboys, Native Americans, and animals including life-size deer, moose, and elk.  I don’t think I have ever seen so much public art in such a small town before.

The race expo was held in the same area where the race would start.  The Vacation Races folks try to eliminate waste so they encouraged people to bring their own bag.  For those of us who forgot, they had a tent set up where you could make a bag out of an old race shirt (free race shirts provided).  I quickly made one to carry my bib and all my purchases at the Expo.     In addition to various vendors, Park Rangers were on hand to provide information about Grand Teton National Park and the wildlife there including bears (both Grizzly and Black).   It was a small but very pleasant Expo.

This race was almost all up hill!

Views of the mountains as we ran

The race started early, at 6:30 am.  As we started running, almost every turn gave us a different view of the mountains.  Although my rehab trainer tells me “head down” when I run, it was very difficult to do during this race.  There were so many things to see like the hot air balloons flying down the valley with the mountains looming in the background (sorry, my pictures of the balloons didn’t turn out well).  There wasn’t any music along the course but that was wonderful because we could listen to the birds as we ran.  Between the elevation with a steady climb of 580 feet on the course and stopping to take pictures, my finish time wasn’t my best.  That didn’t matter to me because this was a race course to savor, not one to rush through.

After the race, I took time to visit the Jackson Hole Historical Society Museum.  They had fascinating exhibits on life of the early settlers, trappers, cowboys, and Native Americans.  The guides in the museum had plenty of stories about Jackson’s more colorful residents from the past.

Peregrine Falcon

Later I visited the Teton Raptor Center.  Their mission is to rehabilitate injured raptors; support research projects on raptors; and provide educational programs.  (A raptor is a bird that hunts and kills with their talons/feet and eats by ripping up the meat with their beaks.)  They showed us several birds who are not able to be released back into the wild because of the severity of their injuries (e.g., blind in one eye, amputated wing parts, paralyzed feet).  Among the birds on display were a Great Horned Owl, Red-Tailed Hawk, Peregrine Falcon, Eastern Screech Owl, Kestrel, and Bald Eagle.  It was fascinating to see the birds up close and learn about their unique characteristics.

Saturday night was rodeo night.  Although they didn’t have all the typical rodeo events, I was able to get an idea of what a rodeo is all about (this was my first rodeo).  There were events for bull riding, bucking broncos, team calf roping, and barrel racing.  Little kids participated in mutton busting where they tried to ride a sheep for 8 seconds.  It is a lot harder than you think to ride a sheep.

Wyoming – My 42nd State, only 8 more to go!

I highly recommend the Grand Teton Half Marathon.  The scenery is beautiful with pine forests, wild flowers, mountains, and an abundance of wildlife.  If you still feel like moving after the race, you can go hiking or kayaking on one of the many lakes in the park.   I enjoyed seeing a different part of the country with such an interesting history.   For me it was definitely an adventure.

I loved the idea for reusing an old race shirt to make a bag.  I am going to look through my old race shirts for one that would make a fun bag.  I found this link with instructions on how to make a bag from an old t-shirt:  https://snapguide.com/guides/make-a-tote-bag-from-an-old-t-shirt-no-sewing/

I stayed at the Wort Hotel, a historic hotel with such an amazing display of photos and western art it could be a museum.  The rooms were very comfortable and the staff was pleasant and helpful.  I would definitely stay there again.

Some of the amazing art on display in the Wort Hotel

The Teton Raptor Center has a project, the Poo-Poo Project, underway to help prevent cavity-nesting birds from entering vault toilets through the ventilation pipes and becoming entrapped.  Vault toilets are the self-contained restrooms found in many of America’s wilderness areas, featuring vertical ventilation pipes that mimic the natural cavities preferred by some species for nesting and roosting. Birds enter the vault toilet through the ventilation pipe and get stuck in the ‘basement’ of the vault toilet.  Thousands of birds become entrapped and die in bottom of vault toilets in the US each year.  Cavity-nesting birds also can be entrapped in other types of open pipes as well including irrigation pipes, ventilation pipes, dryer vents, and chimneys.

The Poo-Poo Project is addressing the problem by installing vent screens on vault toilets.  You can help the Poo-Poo Project two ways. First you can notify the Teton Raptor Center of any vault toilet in your area that needs to have a Poo-Poo screen installed.  Second, you can make a donation to cover the cost of a Poo-Poo screen(s).  Donations can be made as gifts in honor or memory of someone too.  You can find out more information about the Poo-Poo Project at http://tetonraptorcenter.org/our-work/poo-poo-project/.  I was happy to make a donation for two Poo-Poo screens.  

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