I always find a mountain to climb wherever I go. On my seventh day in Japan, I decided to climb Mount Hiei, regarded as the “Northern Guardian” of the valley in which Kyoto lies. It is additionally home to a temple called Enryaku-ji. Enryaku-ji began in the early 9th century and was at one time a huge temple complex with more than 3,000 sub-temples. The temple is particularly famous for its clan of Warrior Monks who were trained when succession disputes broke out between Enryaku-ji and a temple at the foot of Mt. Hiei. These warrior monks would even attack the capital in Kyoto in order to enforce their demands. In an effort to unite Japan, the military leader of the country in the mid-1500’s attacked and razed Enryaku-ji to the ground, slaughtering all the warrior monks.
Epic hypocrisies aside, the temple complex was eventually rebuilt and became the home to the enigmatic “Marathon Monks” which is what I was most interested in learning about. These monks, as part of their quest for enlightenment, complete a 1000-day Kaihōgyō or set of spiritual trainings. In particular, these monks take on a rigorous course of walking meditation and at certain points in their journey will walk over 52 miles per day for 100 consecutive days. This is preceded by many series of 100-200 consecutive days of walking shorter distances (like 26 miles hence the “Marathon” title). Traditionally, if the monks were unable to finish their journey, they were honor-bound to commit ritual suicide.
Now here is some incentive to not give up on your exercise routine. Imagine if your gym membership came with a contract that said that you had to kill yourself if you missed a day. Better yet, imagine having to end your life if you missed a day of practicing your instrument. Sometimes I do feel like dying when I miss days! In modern practice, however, there is no suicide requirement for the monks of Mount Hiei so we won’t have to worry about over-the-top personal trainers any time soon.
Anyway, spurred on by my curiosity about these Marathon Monks and a desire to conquer the highest mountain in Kyoto, I found myself wandering around the northeast corner of the prefecture in search of this hiking trail. I found it eventually with plenty of help from my trusty smart phone. At first, I wasn’t too sure that I was on a trail and not wandering up a water run-off lane but this wasn’t the first time I had felt this way about a hiking trail. Luckily my sense of cardinal directions is decent and I knew I was at least headed in the right direction.
The further up I went, the more clear the trail became and the more I could see the draw of monks to this area in particular. The dense, new-growth forest eventually gave way to a stand of huge, tall pine trees. It seemed that, because the trees were so tall and close together, they had all shed their lower branches due to a lack of sunlight close to the forest floor. The effect was the ability to see through the pines for miles in each direction. I am not sure the trees were like this when the Warrior Monks lived here but the height advantage was probably motivation enough to set up their camp on this mountain.
If it wasn’t because of tactical reasons, the monks surely moved here because of the scenic beauty of the mountain. When I finally reached the top, the view was breath-taking.
I only knew it was the top because I could see people getting off of the cable car which could have carried me here for a little more money and much less effort but for nowhere near the satisfaction. As I gazed off into the Kyoto valley, many people passed by and stared at me more than they had been the whole trip. I was absolutely dripping with sweat; Kyoto is somehow far more humid than South Carolina which I did not think to be possible. When I went to enter the temple, I realized my wallet had been in my pocket for the whole climb and was dripping with the sweat from my backside. I had to hand the toll booth operator a yen note that was sopping wet. In a country where my change was always handed to me neat, folded, organized, and in two outstretched palms, I felt very embarrassed paying in the way I did. Luckily, this particular man’s sensibilities about customer service outweighed his sensibilities about money and he laughed and said something about the heat (I hope).
But I would not have had it any other way. Give me mountains with steep climbs and lots of sweat or give me death! Because anything that is worth experiencing will require a good amount of work. If all the mountains of the world were accessible by escalators and moving sidewalks, I guarantee no one would go to them. Likewise, if you could, overnight, learn to play an instrument like Joshua Bell plays the violin or Julien Beaudiment plays the flute (with the LA Phil), everyone would be frolicking around playing virtuosic concerti at their leisure and no one would want to go see concerts any more. I have found that the more you work for something, the more you get out of it. This may seem elementary but in order to understand the magnanimity of this phenomenon, you must experience it in the real world. Nothing is quite like the experience of throwing yourself, body, heart, and soul, into a project and then having that work all come to fruition.
So I look for mountains wherever I go and in my everyday life. I hear a piece of music and I want to tackle it. I see a big hill or mountain and I want to climb it. And I take on things that will be hard to do because I know that I will get a lot out of them. The more I struggle to achieve a goal, the sweeter it will be when I actually achieve it. And it is while you are undergoing a struggle that you will meet your true self which is the most important experience for any human to have. This is something I think the monks of Mount Hiei understood intimately.
So go look for mountains, for in climbing them we meet ourselves and can change our lives forever.