Tokyo Correspondent Mark Simkin and his Japanese cameraman, Jun Matsuzono, bring us an incredible story of endurance and inner strength. If you thought the Olympics represented the pinnacle of physical achievement, think again.
The worlds greatest athletes may well live at the top of a sacred mountain just outside the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto. Over a seven year training period, these Buddhist monks from the Tendai sect figuratively circle the globe on foot. During one incredible 100-day stretch, they cover 84 kms daily - twice the length of an Olympic marathon.
The prize they seek is not a gold medal, nor fame and material fortune. Rather, their quest is for personal enlightenment.
Mark and Jun follow the progress of one monk as he completes his seven-year training period.
Genshin Fujinami sleeps for just two hours a night, and walks or runs through the forest for seventeen. And he does it every single day for more than three months. Forget high tech supplements and performance drugs. He lives off a rice ball and a bowl of noodles. And he runs in rope sandals going through up to five pairs a day.
Fujinami is one of only 46 monks to have completed the gruelling test, known as the Kaihygyo, in the last four centuries. The monks from Mt Hiei have been conducting the Kaihygyo for more than a thousand years. The point is not the running itself its a pilgrimage around the sacred mountain, worshipping Buddha through nature and gaining intense personal awareness.
Tradition decrees that monks who begin the Kaihygyo but fail to complete it must kill themselves. And for this reason, Fujinami a dissatisfied former corporate foot soldier looking for meaning in his life carries a rope and knife under his white robes.
You must think positively, he tells Mark. I believe I can continue until the end I cannot allow myself to think what if?
As a final endurance test, Fujinami must complete the Doiri going for nine days without food, drink or sleep. Another monk who has completed the Doiri tells Mark: It is not about controlling worldly desires, but denying them. This is why some marathon monks are able to hear the sound of ash falling from an incense stick, or smell food being prepared at the foot of the mountain. It is as if they are visiting the world of the dead.
And at journeys end, in the shade of Kyotos cherry blossom trees, what has Fujinami learned? I feel that I have accomplished a job, that is all, he says. The training has taught me that everyone and everything are equal. A human being is not special. There are no special things.
Filmed over a period of almost a year, under difficult conditions, Japans Marathon Monks is an insight into an aspect of Japanese culture that youre unlikely to see outside of Japan.
SIMKIN: On the outskirts of Japans ancient capital, Kyoto, stands a sacred mountain. It is here, on Mount Hiei that the marathon monks live, pray and defy death.
SIMKIN: The monks pursue enlightenment. What they put themselves through are so utterly extraordinary, it must rate as one of the most incredible and dangerous feats of endurance. These men may be the worlds greatest athletes.
Fujinami prepares for pilgrimage
SIMKIN: It is 1.00 am and Genshin Fujinami is preparing for what lies ahead.White is the Buddhist colour of death. He wears it as a reminder his journey will take him to the limits of life itself and quite possibly, beyond.
Fujinami walking at night
SIMKIN: Fujinamis pilgrimage is more than 80 kilometres long. The monk will follow the route every day for the next three and a half months. Hell sleep for just two hours a night, then walk for seventeen hours only stopping to utter a few secret incantations.
An Olympic marathon is 42 kilometres. On each of the next 100 days, Fujinami will cover twice that distance. Unlike a professional athlete though, the forty-four year old must traverse treacherous mountain trails, often in complete darkness. There are no high-tech supplements to keep him going, just a daily rice ball and a bowl of noodles.
FUJINAMI: The tough thing is to continue the training for one hundred days. If I was training for a marathon Id be able to rest at certain times. Without rest, an athlete cannot advance to the next step.
Fujinami walking at night
SIMKIN: The monk is approaching the conclusion of the Kaihogyo, seven years of tests and trials. By the end of it, if he survives, he will become a living saint.
Fujinami writes of a need to worship from the bottom of his heart. He once worked as a salaryman, an office worker, but couldnt find fulfilment. Eleven years ago he came to Mt Hiei, cutting his hair and all ties with his family, so he could join the marathon monks.
FUJINAMI: When I was a salaryman, my life was passive. I was told to do this and that -- and that was all. Since I was a child, Ive dreamt about doing something where I can think by myself --and there are many things in the monks world where I have to think for myself.
Monks with prayer books
SIMKIN: The marathons monks are Buddhists from the Tendai sect. Their rules are strict, their lifestyle austere. The order has been conducting the Kaihogyo for more than one thousand years.
FUJINAMI: The purpose of the marathon is not to walk, per se.
We visit places of worship -- and we go there on foot. Then we go to another object of worship -- it is like a pilgrimage.
Steven practising akido
SIMKIN: This man knows more about the marathon monks than any outsider. John Stevens is an expert in the art of aikido and an authority in the more gentle art of Buddhism. The professor studied at Mt Hiei and wrote a book about its special inhabitants.
Stevens. Super:Prof. John Stevens
Author, The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei
JOHN STEVENS: I think even in, you know Australia the Aborigines have the same sort of practice, that they will wander and they can feel where, I have to go to this place, the dreamtime?
SIMKIN: Thats right, walkabout.
JOHN STEVENS: Walkabout and this is the Japanese walkabout, the marathon monks.
SIMKIN: In all, Fujinami must spend 1000 days on the road in all seasons, in all conditions. The Kaihogyo allows Fujinami to commune with Mother Nature and discover his own inner nature. He is one of the slower marathon monks, but appearances can be deceiving.
JOHN STEVENS: They walk it seems but if youre next to them, they are really moving fast. Ive known theres been marathon runners who try to train with them, they cant last than more than a week.
They blow out, then they poop out. They just have no energy left. They cant, they cant follow the course. They can keep up with them, the pace, but they cant do it you know continuously. A week is the maximum.
SIMKIN: The road to enlightenment is strewn with jagged rocks, poisonous snakes and uneven ground. And yet it is traversed with hand-made straw sandals that offer little protection.
Monks lace sandals on Fujinami
Fujinami goes through at least two, sometimes five pairs a day. His feet are left blistered, bruised and broken but he cannot stop. Under his robes Fujinami carried a rope and knife. If he fails to complete his mountain march, no matter what the reason, he must immediately hang or disembowel himself.
JOHN STEVENS: This is serious. There have been people who have died in practice. Along the roadside there you will see, This monk died during training.
FUJINAMI: You must think positively. Thinking positively, I believe I can continue until the end. I cannot allow myself to think What if?.
Monks at Doiri ceremony
SIMKIN: In year five, the running is interrupted by something even more dangerous and demanding the Doiri.
It is so secret, so sacred, that television cameras are not allowed but this amateur footage provides a remarkable insight into Fujinamis ordeal. He must go nine days without any food, drink or sleep. Inside the temple, the monk sits and prays.
Stevens. Super:Prof. John Stevens
Author, The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei
JOHN STEVENS: Theres two monks always on each side of them guarding them so they dont fall over, they dont sleep. Theyre very strict about not taking the food or water, but the hardest thing seems though to keep your neck straight. Most of them say that. You know keeping erect, see the desire for food and water goes away but staying awake the whole time?
Fujinami at Doiri ceremony
SIMKIN: Fujinami is only allowed to get up once every twenty-four hours when he fetches sacrificial water. On day one, the 200 metre trip to the well took a few minutes. Here, on day nine, the walk takes an agonising hour.
That he can walk at all is a miracle. According to medical theory, Fujinami should be dead. But the monk survives and emerges from his nine day fast, weak but triumphant.
FUJINAMI: It became difficult to breathe the air. It was very hard -- as if my internal organs were malfunctioning.
Mentally, I lost the capacity to think. I had expected to be able to meditate and concentrate, but I lost the ability to think of anything.
Gyosho Uehara at temple
SIMKIN: Different monks deal with the Doiri in different ways. This is the last man to complete the challenge ten years ago. Gyosho Uehara is now a senior monk on Mt Hiei. He says that as the men come face to face with death, some develop a remarkable awareness of life, special powers of perception.
GYOSHO UEHARA: The Doiri is not about controlling worldly desires, but denying them.
This is why some marathon monks are able to hear the sound of ash falling from an incense stick -- or smell food being prepared at the foot of the mountain. It is as if they are visiting the world of the dead.
Monks on pilgrimage
SIMKIN: In the final year of the Kaihogyo, as the Cherry Blossoms begin to bloom, the running monk exchanges the solitude of the mountain for the bustle of urban Kyoto. The new route takes him past geisha houses and love hotels, to the old part of town.
Fujinami at temple
Fujinami visits the citys ancient temples and shrines, stopping briefly at each. During this part of the challenge, some of the devoted walk with him. This mans been helping the marathon monks for half a century.
PARISHIONER: I serve them because I believe they are living gods of fire. In the old days, it was an unsafe society and the parishioners wore swords. Their main duty was to guard the monk from ruffians. Now, our main duty is to control the traffic.
Parishioner walks with Fujinami
SIMKIN: There are other duties too. Providing food, money and a more physical kind of support, one of them pushes Fujinami along. Believers who cannot walk line the streets, begging for a blessing.
Fujinami blesses parishioners
FUJINAMI; The Kaihogyo is not about the individual. It is something that is handed over -- passed down from generation to generation,
through oral tradition. Everything including the clothes is the same as it always was. The individual is not significant.
Monks walk over bridge
SIMKIN: Once a year, the marathon monks and their attendants venture deep into the mountains for a special retreat. Its very different to the restrained, aesthetic world the men usually inhabit. The founder of the sect discovered God by jumping into a waterfall. His followers imitate the leap of faith. This is a select gathering. The Kaihogyo is so gruelling only 46 men have completed it in the last four centuries.
Yusai Sakai signing books
Of those who did and are still alive, Yusai Sakai is the undisputed champion, a national treasure and media superstar. These days he spends much of his time signing the many books that have been written about him.
SIMKIN: During World War II, Sakai worked for Unit 731, the biological warfare unit that killed vast numbers of Chinese. When the war was lost, Sakais family started a noodle shop. It burnt down. He married a cousin, she committed suicide. Depressed and aimless, Sakai joined the marathon monks and began to run. He raced through one seven year challenge then, though aged in his fifties, began a second.
YUSAI SAKAI: Because I was lazy and had a good-for-nothing life, there was nothing else for me to do. Furthermore, when I was a child at school, I flunked my exams again and again. I completed the pilgrimage once but because Id needed to do everything else in my life twice, I thought Id better walk twice if I really wanted to achieve something.
SIMKIN: Looking at him now, its hard to believe how close this living God came to death. Sakai was attacked by a wild boar. His foot infected, the pain excruciating, the monk remembered that failure to complete the course requires suicide. He ensured that he would die if he passed out.
YUSAI SAKAI: After I lanced the wound, I propped the knife under my stomach like this. But fate intervened, did it not? I do not know how or why, but I survived.
Sakai on pilgrimage with Fujinami
SIMKIN: At age 61, Sakai completed his 2000th day on the road. Soon after, he was back on the track, revealing the mountains secrets to a new monk. The novices name was Genshin Fujinami, the man now undertaking a Kaihogyo of his own. Sakai is his master, responsible for guiding him through the seven year challenge.
YUSAI SAKAI: The message I wish to convey is please live each day as if it is your entire life. If you start something today, finish it today --tomorrow is another world. Live life positively.
Fujinami on pilgrimage
SIMKIN: Its a message his disciple has taken to heart. Today, 1000 days and more than 46,000 kilometres after he began, the end is in sight. Fujinami has travelled far enough to have circled the globe. Its an historic occasion. The journalists and disciples have come from across the country to witness it. The believers receive a final blessing and then, almost anti-climatically, it is all over.
FUJINAMI: I feel that I have accomplished a job. That is all. I do now know whether I should call it enlightenment or not, but the training has taught me that everyone and everything are equal. A human being is not special. There are no special things.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
SIMKIN: The celebrations are held in Kyoto at the ancient Imperial Palace. Eight hundred people, including Fujinamis master, Sakai, and the head monk, Uehara have come to pay their respects. Fujinami is now a national celebrity, an inspiration to Japanese workers.
JOHN STEVENS: The inspiration that if you train, no matter what it is, you can accomplish this and
the whole idea is to bring out your inner nature, your Buddha nature. Its realising your potential.
Celebration at Kyoto Imperial Palace
SIMKIN: Fujinami is a powerful symbol, embodying the determination and discipline that turned a war-ravaged nation into an industrial superpower.
PARISHIONER: The marathon monks, who risk their lives by undergoing their training, sweep away our feelings of laziness. When I think about them, I am inspired.
SIMKIN: But fewer and fewer people are inspired enough to join or support the marathon monks. Fujinami believes young, modern Japanese have little interest in religion, sacrifice and tradition.
FUJINAMI: Japanese culture is gradually dying.
I deeply regret the way Japanese people are embracing anything new and are not making much of the old things.
Monk rings bell
SIMKIN: And so, amid the celebrations, there are hints of uncertainty. The monks have a wonderful history, but they wonder and worry about their place in Japans future. Who will be next to walk in Fujinamis shoes, to follow in his footsteps.
Reporter: Mark Simkin
Camera/sound: Jun Matsuzono
Editor: Garth Thomas
Research: Yayoi Eguchi