#005 – HIEI-SAN
Presiding over Kyoto is its pair of sentinel mountains: Atago to the West and Hiei to the East, the latter topping out just under some 850 metres and cutting off Northern Kyoto from the shores of Lake Biwa. We’d conquered Atago, fleeing the summer heat the year before. Conversely, The Missus and I set off for Hiei-san in the hope of prolonging spring as the sakura dwindled down on the flats. Pale pink petals lost on the breeze; fresh green foliage usurping the blossoms’ places on the branches. Perhaps on higher ground, amidst the temple precincts of that ancient mountain sanctuary we could enjoy the cherry blossoms one final time that season.
Eschewing cable car and bus rides to the top we dispatched The Kid to school and made for the upper reaches of Kyoto’s Shirakawa Street, a mere hop, skip and a jump from our house. Once there we walked in circles in search of the trailhead, our map having led us astray. Eventually we found a rough little muddy scar leading up into the hills and out of the little enclave we’d prowled for half an hour or so.
– Are you sure this is the right way? The Missus asked.
– Bugger it. The track’s going up. It’ll bloody well have to do, I grumbled, thundering off into the scrub, damning all consequences.
An elderly chap, presumably out for a morning stroll, descended through the thicket towards us.
– I haven’t seen anyone use this track to climb Hiei-san in the fifty years I’ve lived here, he looked us up and down somewhat concerned after The Missus announced our intentions. I suppose it’s doable, he added. Keep turning left though, or you’ll end up at Shugaku-in.
Advice we promptly discarded when faced, ten minutes later, with a right hand trail climbing a ridge and a left hand option leading back down into suburbia.
It was a miserable climb. My boots refused to be walked-in. On mountain and on flat, since Christmas time, they’d been sinking their teeth into my heels and turning my big toes black. I spat and swore and cursed and grumbled for the next five hours up and over that sacred mountain. The Missus exhibiting the patience of a saint all the way. At one point I considered hurling the boots off my hooves, out into the wide blue yonder and wander barefoot like an ascetic going about his austerities.
On Hiei though, my few hours of suffering were nothing compared to the tribulations some who take to the mountain’s ancient trails subject themselves to. The proud peak is home to a Buddhist sect of monks that put most deeds dubbed as modern day machismo firmly in their place. Lost souls abandoning the trappings of the material world fall in with the Tendai sect in search of some deeper kind of fulfillment. This clique’s most famous test is simply known as ‘ The Thousand Days of Training’, a journey to death’s door and back that leads the successful initiates to so-called living sainthood status. Over a period of seven years they run, trot, hobble and limp, in white robes and bamboo grass slippers, the rugged trails of the district, covering either a prescribed thirty or eighty four kilometres in a day. 975 times. That’s either three quarters of a marathon or a double marathon every couple of days – or less, as during winter they don’t run. At any time that they can’t complete their daily distance, they have at their disposal a knife and a rope, a small luxury of choice awaiting them at the end of the line. The last 25 days making up the thousand are not completed, symbolising the belief that one’s training never really ends. In the middle of all this, after the fifth year of training, the monks undertake the ominous ‘Do-iri’ a nine day sutra chanting ordeal where food, water, sleep and even lying down are forbidden. After five days they can gargle some water but must spit out precisely as much liquid as they swilled. At two each morning, the only time they can move from their sitting position, they leave the prayer hall and walk outside to pour water over a statue of Buddha. Concessions, apparently, have been made. The ‘Do-iri’ has been shortened from ten days – too many of its participants weren’t making it. Summer is also out after humidity was found to be quite conducive to gut and internal organ rot while participants were still alive and chanting. Anyone who gets through the ‘Do-iri’ can hit the trail again for another couple of years.
At the end of my day out on Hiei-san I howled to the heavens at not getting off the summit to the ice-cream stand before it shut, then caught an 800 yen bus ride off the top back into town…
…I truly was not worthy.