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Vol.18, no.2
April/May 2015

 

Runner of a Thousand Days 
Story By: Dave Choo

It’s Saturday afternoon, and Acharya Ryojun Shionuma is having a leisurely lunch beside a cascading Japanese-style garden at The Honolulu Museum of Art’s Spalding House Café. Shionuma, conspicuous in his monk’s robes, is eating light: kale salad and vegetable soup. Tomorrow, along with thirty thousand other people, he’ll be running the 2014 Honolulu Marathon. But Shionuma is utterly unlike 29,999 of those other people. A Buddhist priest from Sendai, Shionuma was invited by Honolulu’s consul general of Japan to run the race with him. The priest eagerly accepted the offer, thinking that the pair would race as a team, each covering half of the 26.2-mile course. But marathoning, as he found out, isn’t really a team sport.

Shionuma had never run the Honolulu Marathon—nor any road race for that matter. He didn’t train and did nothing to prepare beyond buying running shoes. Yet now, sitting in the café, he doesn’t seem concerned about his time or even whether he’ll finish. “I’m not sure, five or six hours maybe?” Shionuma tells me through an interpreter. “I just hope that I cross the finish line before they shut down the race.”

To the casual observer, Shionuma’s cavalier approach toward a race most others spend a year preparing to run seems naïve, foolhardy, even dangerous. But Shionuma knows a little something about tests of endurance. The unassuming priest, who looks ten years younger than his mid-forties, belongs to the Shugendo sect of Buddhism, one of Japan’s oldest, founded in AD 672. Shugendo (literally “the path of training and testing”) is associated with the indigenous Shinto religion, which has deep connections with the natural world. The sect was banned from the Meiji period until the end of WWII because it was considered too primitive, filled with magic and superstition. Its disciples are famous for testing their spiritual strength through feats of physical endurance, often in the mountains.

Shionuma has completed the two toughest of those tests. The first and by far the hardest is the Omine Sennichi Kaihogyo (One Thousand Days Trekking on Mount Omine). Every year during the trekking season (May 3 to September 22), he walked thirty miles a day in the mountains above Nara, hiking from Mount Yoshino to Mount Omine and back again, an elevation change of nearly four thousand feet. “The thousand-day practice is limited to five months out of the year because the trail is impassable during the winter,” says Shionuma. “However, because there is such a big change in altitude, you can experience many different climates during one hike, even during the summer when temperatures reach over one hundred degrees.” Averaging 110 consecutive days of trekking during each season, it took Shionuma nine years to complete the kaihogyo, a journey equivalent to circling Earth one and a quarter times. Only one other person has completed the thousand-day practice on Mount Omine in the sect’s 1,300-year history. Since 1885, forty-six people have completed a similar practice on Mount Heian, near Kyoto, but the Heian hike is shorter and less challenging.

Every night during the trekking season, Shionuma would wake at 11:30 p.m. and recite prayers while bathing under an ice-cold waterfall. Then he would climb the five hundred steps to Yoshino Kinpusenji, the temple where he would begin his trek. He would dress in traditional attire, his all-white robes (the color of death in Japan) fastened by three ropes from which hung a container with half a liter of water, two musubi (rice ball snacks) and a bell to signal his presence to bears on the trail. From one rope hung a dagger. If he failed to complete the course, Shionuma was prepared to use one or the other to either hang or disembowel himself. (Though having completed the hundred days of practice required of anyone wishing to attempt the kaihogyo, he was fairly confident that this wouldn’t be necessary.)


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