Culture Running Spirituality Wanderlust

Tracing the footsteps of the Mt. Hiei Marathon Monks

Since I came across the Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei legend, I have always wanted to run Mt. Hiei and trace the route that these monks followed. They ran a few hundred days a year, totalling a thousand days over a period of 5 to 10 years, depending on which version you hear. During the first half of the ritual, they were running one marathon a day, increasing to two marathons a day in the remaining half. Throw in days of hunger and thirst, strict adherence to temple duties, days-long chanting and praying sessions in front of an energy sapping fire, and we can easily visualise the mental toughness that these monks needed to complete their rituals. The final double marathon course weaving through the streets of Kyoto, the surviving (and supposedly realised) monks ran through narrow streets lined with the locals bowing, heads touching the ground, in reverence of their efforts. You can count on two hands the number of monks who have completed this ritual alive over the last centuries.

Typhoon Trami was on its way to Kyoto, but I was not going to miss the opportunity to run this legendary mountain. The trail weaved through jungles, waterfalls, statues, temples – Shintoist and Buddhist. My footsteps and breath mixed with the mist, wind and drizzle that was picking up pace in anticipation of the typhoon.

At noon, the ground was getting very slippery under constant rain. Descending steep rocks, I had a tumble. Then I heard the sound of gongs. It was my lucky day, as a religious ritual was about to take place with hundreds of monks present.

Near the top of Mt. Hiei, I had a whole French café and garden full of Impressionist reproductions to myself. I enjoyed home-made croissants, local herbal tea, and freshly brewed coffee, before heading downhill. One of the benefits of running around on a wild weather day is that nobody is around, including bears!

Needless to say, I felt quite at home here. Reflecting on where the roads have taken me this year, I reckon in my previous incarnation, I must have been a Viking who sucked at navigation, got lost at the North Pole and ended up wandering the Mongolian high plains on horseback, before finding his calling on Mt. Hiei as a marathon monk. Sounds strange? I have heard stranger stories!