Mount Hiei, starting point for an exhausting
test of spiritual endurance
For 1,300 years the sacred Buddhist peak of Mount Hiei in central Japan has been home to an extraordinary group of monk.

 

The Tendai sect follow a unique spiritual path that is an exhausting physical test of endurance.

 

For 100 days, a select group of monks embark on what they call the Kaihogyo.

 

Rising at one in the morning, they run a 30km mountain trail - stopping to pray at more than 200 locations.

 

As if that is not tough enough, the Tendai monks run the twisting, rocky course in the dark, wearing traditional robes and hand-made straw sandals on their feet.

 

Failure is not an option. Monks either complete the challenge, die trying, or commit suicide in shame.

 

Those who survive can take on an even bigger challenge - the Sennichi Kaihogyo, a 1,000 day course of marathons and meditations.

 

Lost soul

 

It takes over seven years to complete and only 46 monks have done it since 1885.

 

Yusai Sakai, 82, has completed the
Sennichi Kaihogyo twice
Yusai Sakai has done it twice.

 

"I did my first thousand days when I was 50 years old and the second when I was 57," the 82-year-old says.

 

He says he was a lost soul, lazy and depressed, when his friends brought him here four decades ago.

 

During World War II he had been a member of Japan's notorious biological warfare group, Unit 731.

 

At first, he struggled to gain acceptance from the monks. Now, he is a living legend.

 

Sakai says the long-distance running is the easy part. The hard part comes in the fifth year - nine days of meditation without food, water or sleep.

 

"On the second day your lips dry out," he says. But that is just the beginning.

 

Price of failure

 

"On the fourth day you see spots on your body and you start to smell like a rotten fish. You have to burn incense to cover the smell.

 

No Nikes, monks must make do with a pair
of straw sandals on the mountain course
"On the fifth day they bring you water to gargle. You have to spit the water out into different cup. If the amount you spit out is less than you put in your mouth, you fail the ritual."

 

Sakai says he once thought about committing suicide after an attack by a wild boar left him injured on the trail.

 

"I started looking for a place to die, but I didn't want to die just anywhere."

 

He says what kept him going was a simple piece of wisdom he learned from his straw sandals.

 

"I realised that every single day of my life is actually a whole lifetime. I change my straw sandals every day and each time I start a new life.

 

"When you run around the mountain you're tired and you make mistakes. Many times I've had to apologise to the spirits for those mistakes. When I come down from the mountain I think about the mistakes and promise myself not to repeat them.

 

Sakai says he has no plans to tackle the thousand-day challenge a third time. He's too old for that now.

 

And besides, he says, if he did it three times people might think it was easy.

Source: Al Jazeera