Issue 18.2: April/May 2015

Runner of a Thousand Days

In the mountains above Nara, Buddhist priest Ryōjun Shionuma has accomplished astonishing feats of discipline and endurance
Story by Dave Choo.

It’s Saturday afternoon, and Acharya Ryōjun 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.”

Ryōjun Shionuma stands in calm repose on the grounds of the Honolulu Museum of Art's Spalding House. Shionuma is one of only two people in history to have completed the One Thousand Days Trekking on Japan's Mount Ōmine.

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 Shugendō sect of Buddhism, one of Japan’s oldest, founded in AD 672. Shugendō (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 Ōmine Sennichi Kaihōgyō (One Thousand Days Trekking on Mount Ōmine). 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 Ōmine 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 kaihōgyō, a journey equivalent to circling Earth one and a quarter times. Only one other person has completed the thousand-day practice on Mount Ōmine 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 kaihōgyō, he was fairly confi-dent that this wouldn’t be necessary.)

Shionuma would usually reach the summit of Ōmine by 8:30 a.m., where he would drink some water and eat his musubi before returning to Mount Yoshino. He would arrive back at the temple at around 3:30 p.m., a fifteen-hour round-trip. After a meal of tea and rice, he was in bed by 7 p.m., waking up four and a half hours later to start again.

During his nine years of hiking, the priest had to sidestep countless venomous pit vipers, avoid wild boar, navigate around landslides, weather several typhoons and once had to face down an angry, charging bear. (He had neglected to wear his bell that day.) However, it was often the little things that posed a threat to survival. Because he wasn’t allowed to receive medical care during the thousand-day practice, injuries, illness and even insect bites could be debilitating, even potentially lethal. “Often-times I would brush up against a bush or tree and cut myself. I carried antiseptic with me and made sure that I treated the cut early and often. I knew that even a small scratch could lead to a serious infection,” says Shionuma. “The pit vipers were always a worry, but they were easy to avoid when you came upon them. The ticks and horseflies weren’t.”

Shionuma first learned of the thousand-day practice when he saw a television documentary about a monk attempting the Heian kaihōgyō. He was only in middle school at the time, but there was something about the monk’s struggle that the young Shionuma found inspiring. To this day Shionuma doesn’t know why he became so enamored with the ascetic practice or why he was so intent on making it his life’s ambition at such a young age.

Having grown up poor, Shionuma was no stranger to struggle and deprivation. His mother was chronically ill and often bed-ridden. His father was mostly absent and inattentive when he was around. During Shionuma’s second year in middle school, his father left his wife, son and mother-in-law to fend for themselves. Relatives and neighbors helped feed the family, and the young Shionuma pitched in where he could: He would collect the discarded metal balls from the floor of the local pachinko parlor and eventually became skilled at the game, trading in his winnings for rice, shoyu and miso.

Shionuma says that his mother and grandmother were his sources of strength and inspiration during the toughest parts of the thousand-day practice. One of those came at about the halfway point, when he had contracted a stomach ailment that prevented him from eating or keeping down what little food he could eat. After several days of illness, he woke up one night an hour late, weak and delirious. He stumbled through his preparations, and shortly after starting his hike he collapsed and lost consciousness. However, drifting in and out, he felt a warming sense of calm. “I had no sense of pain or distress or discomfort,” he says. “I felt like I was encased in a protective sphere, and I hoped that time would stop and I could remain like that forever. However, there was another voice inside of me that said that if I didn’t get up and start walking, I would die there.”

Shionuma then saw his life flash before his eyes. He remembered the day his father left; how he, his mother and grandmother huddled around a space heater and cried; how they vowed that they would somehow manage without his father. He remembered how they sometimes didn’t have anything to eat, how friends and family would bring them food or clothing. Mostly, he remembered his mother and everything she had done for him, how she told him on the day he left to join the temple that life is filled with adversity and disappointment. He would have to learn to “eat sand,” she’d said, and move on. Still lying on the trail, Shionuma grabbed a handful of dirt and put it in his mouth. “It was really awful, but it immediately brought me back to consciousness, and I took off with a great burst of energy and went straight up the mountain,” he says. “From that time on, my physical condition improved.”

Shionuma completed the thousand-day practice on September 2, 1999. The night before, he had gone to sleep anxious. He was worried that he would wake up without the desire and enthusiasm to do the hike—an irrational fear, given that it had never happened before. Neither did it happen that last morning; he completed the hike just as he had 999 times before, without fanfare or celebration. “I only had the sense that the practice had ended; no more, no less,” says Shionuma. “Climbing those mountains wasn’t the ultimate goal. I had things to do. Completing the practice was like graduating from college.”

Shionuma, apparently, wanted to go straight from college to graduate school. Immediately he began training for the second-toughest test in Shugendō, the Shimugyō, or Fourfold Renouncing Practice. By comparison with the thousand-day practice, it’s a quickie. Only nine days. But nine days during which one is not allowed to sleep, eat, drink or lie down. Accordingto Shionuma, about half of the practitioners who attempt the Shimugyō die trying, so he spent a year preparing. He says that fasting was the easiest of the four aspects to complete; during his nine years of the thousand-day practice, he’d become accustomed to surviving on very little food. Sleep deprivation was also not difficult to overcome, again because of his experience with the thousand-day practice. Going without water for nine days was another matter, the most painful physical and psychological test of the four, especially because one of his daily rituals was to carry and offer buckets of water to the Buddha. Even today Shionuma shudders when he recalls what extreme dehydration felt like.

Shionuma says that the fourth and fifth days, when he was at a physical and mental breaking point, were the hardest of the Shimugyō practice. Practitioners are allowed to rinse their mouths out with water during the second half of the practice. Shionuma had understood that this would occur sometime during the fourth day; however, he was told that he couldn’t do it until the fifth. Instead of protesting or despairing, he persevered. When he was finally allowed to rinse with water, he felt rejuvenated, just as he had when he ate dirt on Mount Ōmine. Unlike the subdued ending to the thousand-day practice, when Shionuma finished the Shimugyō a crowd of several hundred—many of them from Sendai—was waiting for him. After a lot of water and a simple meal of nuts and cooked vegetables, he was carried back to his quarters in a sedan chair.

Shionuma says that completing the Shimugyō and the thousand-day practice has reinforced his belief in some of the central tenets of Buddhism: “When facing difficulties, throw yourself at adversity without anger and be humble. Facing hardship is the ordinary condition of life,” he says. “If you are single-minded in facing your difficulties, then mysteriously the situation will appear to you from a different and liberating angle.”

After completing the Shimugyō in 2000, Shionuma decided to leave the mountain temple and return to Sendai. Today he is the head priest of Jigenji (Merciful Eye) Temple in a small village outside Sendai. There he prays, teaches, farms, writes books and welcomes pilgrims. He also speaks throughout Japan and around the world (including in Honolulu the day before the marathon). While much of his talk centers around his travails on the trail, his overall message is that anyone can have a similar experience in daily life. “Awakening is found in ordinary experiences, the change of the seasons, the difficulties of human relationships. It’s a gradual transformation.” Shionuma says that the thousand-day practice left him with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and humility. Hiking the trail day after day, week after week made him realize his close connection and obligation to others, and he wanted to continue his practice among people, not alone in the mountains. “No one exists just by themselves. There is no such thing as doing it alone.”

Unless it’s a marathon, of course. Shionuma finished slow and steady at 7:03:57. He ate no dirt, just a banana or two and a lot of Gatorade. Not surprisingly, he plans on running the race again in 2015. HH

Story by Dave Choo. Photos by