December 1, 2013

Trail Race 2013

By Yasuo Uchisaka
Photography by Sho Fujimaki

The sport of trail running came to Japan in 2001, brought over by Hiroki Ishikawa, an alumnus of “Team Tarzan.” An enthusiastic challenger in the American 100 Mile race, he attained the highest overall ranking in the Big Four 100 Mile Ultramarathons that year. In recent years Japanese trail runners such as Tsuyoshi Taburagi, Kenichi Yamamoto, Shogo Mochizuki and Hiroko Suzuki have become well known participants on the European Alpine Ultramarathon scene.

I assumed trail running was just a sport outside Japan, but am embarrassed to admit that I could not have been more wrong. After all, hasn’t Japan always had mountain religions? Huge boulders, giant trees, the mountains themselves are the sacred vessel bodies of gods to be worshiped. Pilgrimage paths of old that reached into the deep recesses of mountains are the trails of today. Ascetics and Buddhist priests journeyed those steep trails through valleys and peaks as part of their spiritual practice. If that is not trail running, what is?

The path running west from Minobusan Kuonji Temple, head temple of Nichiren Shu, to Keishin-in Temple on Mt. Shichimen is a steep mountain pilgrimage trail with a long history. Already a long established sacred mountain when Nichiren Shonin arrived in 1274, Mt. Shichimen was a place that Shugendo Buddhists (a mystic-esoteric Buddhist/Shinto sect) would climb so that their souls could be reborn in the new light of dawn there in the afterlife.

A panoramic view of Mt. Fuji lies directly east of Keishin-in Temple, a main reason it was built there. The first rays of the rising equinox sun shine forth from the top of Mt. Fuji, penetrate Mt. Shichimen and shoot in a straight line west to Izumo Shrine in far western Honshu.

Reverend Yuji Komatsu, a priest of Keishin-in Temple, thought about this steep mountain path that many climb to worship. For some, it can take 10 hours. Pilgrims well into their 80s climb as if using the last breath of their life. For some reason Rev. Komatsu ran up Shichimen instead of walking. Of course it was a hard, painful experience. But wait a minute, don’t the legends of Shichimen say that spiritual practitioners of old climbed the beastly path wearing Tengu one tooth geta? And that brave people did it in an hour?

Perhaps the people of those times walked faster. It is said one might meet the Tengu demon on the way up. At the trail head, there are pilgrims who look like mountain ascetics. Why not take up the challenge? And so the priests of Keishin-in had the idea of holding a race on the pilgrimage trail and put their plan into action.

The first race was held on December 1, 2013. Keishin-in Temple, at the midpoint, is at an elevation of 1,714 meters, and the Minobu area is cold that time of year. Snow in the higher elevations is not unusual. The elevation profile of the race course covered 2,700 meters. Due to the cold conditions and short daylight, race participation was limited to trail runners who qualified with a full marathon time of less than four hours. Even so, the shorter 13-kilometer race event alone had 380 participants. The race staff was lucky to have 140 volunteers on hand to help manage things.

The weather for the race was perfectly clear, with blue skies, but cold. 193 participants for the 36-kilometer “Dragon Climb Race” ran up Shichimen to the Keishin-in midpoint. The foyer of the temple was transformed into a warming up station serving hot azuki bean soup with rice flour dumplings in it. A tiny slice of paradise along the cold, hard way.

The winner was Skyrace champion Takujiro Iida. The second place winner was Shogo Mochizuki. It looks like the start of a new legend.

Note: This article first appeared in Tarzan magazine (Issue No. 649) in Japan. Translated by Rev. Kanjo Bassett.

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The road less traveled: Heading back to Minobusan along the Akazawa Road. Akazawa used to be a popular overnight stop for pilgrims when they had to climb over Mt. Minobu to get to Mt. Shichimen. Better roads provide direct access to the base of Mt. Shichimen, and most pilgrims now choose the easier route. The pilgrim inns have mostly closed, but villagers have preserved the historic buildings.

And they’re off: 193 runners joined in the first Buddhist Priest Temple Race, a 36-kilometer run, starting from the Sanmon Gate of Minobusan Kuonji Temple.

Odaimoku on the run: A chanting priest welcomes a runner climbing up Mt. Shichimen. Most hikers take four to five hours, but the runners did it in one hour.

High point of the race: Jumping through the Keishin-in Temple gate at the highest elevation on the course. Keishin-in Temple is directly west of Mt. Fuji. On the equinox in spring and fall, the sun rises directly over Mt. Fuji, and these have become favorite times for pilgrims to climb Mt. Shichimen to worship there.

Getting into the spirit: Priests from Keishin-in Temple, the race sponsor, enthusiastically cheer on runners at the midway turning point of the race.

High relief: Runners take a break from the race and some quick refreshment, sweet Shiruko porridge, served by the Keishin-in priests in the temple foyer.

Coming full circle: The long race comes to an end, returning to the same place where it began, at the Sanmon Gate at Minobusan Kuonji Temple.