Today the ordeal these monks endure is known as sennichi kaiho gyo in Japanese, or “one thousand day go around the peaks training.” The monks set out to – and occasionally one will actually – complete a 1,000-day test of their endurance, perseverance, and both physical and mental strength.
Just 46 men have completed the “marathon” challenge since 1885. In part, it involves Buddhist training in meditation and calligraphy in addition to their daily duties at the temple. However, it is much more than that.
As the moniker suggests, it involves running. For the first 300 days, these monks run 40 km per day for 100 consecutive days. In the fourth and fifth years they run 40 km every day for 200 consecutive days.
It gets worse. In the sixth year they run 60 km each day for 100 consecutive days. Finally, in the seventh year they run 84 km each day for 100 consecutive days.
Moreover, the runs usually begin at night and are over rough mountain paths. Footwear is limited to straw sandals.
In addition, as they run the monks must carry maps, books with mantras that they will chant, food for offerings, candles, and a sheathed knife and rope (in the past monks who failed would commit ritual suicide on the trail).
Because of the many stops along the route – for offerings – the time necessary to run can last as much as 20 hours. That allows almost no time for rest.
Perhaps the most grueling aspect of the ordeal, though, is the doiri. For a period of seven days the monks do not eat, drink, or sleep. Instead they recite Buddhist chants and mantras. Two monks are with the marathon monk at all times to make sure that he does not fall asleep.
The purpose of the sleepless fast is to bring the monk face-to-face with death. According to legend, sense is so heightened during this period that the participants claim to be able to hear the ashes of incense falling.