The Marathon Monks' Mountain (and more)

On Sunday I decide to run Mt Hiei, which overlooks Kyoto from the northeast. This mountain is home of the marathon monks, who use one thousand days of long distance walking as a means of achieving enlightenment, so it seemed like a fitting objective for a long run. I decided to tackle the mountain as a point-to-point run, taking the train to Ogotoonsen on the shores of Lake Biwa, and running over Mt Hiei back to Kyoto. (It all makes sense if you look at the Strava activity).

Although Ogotoonsen is only 20 minutes outside of the center of Kyoto, it is truly the countryside. The rice patties begin just beyond the train station. Although there were signs for the highway up Mt Hiei, there was no indication that it might be possible to hike up this side. I was determined to find the way nonetheless. Examining my GPX track, I noticed that there was a trail that dovetailed the section of road I had planned to run in the beginning. I decided to look for it. I soon discovered that all access to this trail had been blocked off by the rice farmers, who had put up locked gates. After messing around for a while, I decided to abort this futile mission and just follow the track I had created.

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Rice farms and the mountains in the distance on the outskirts of Ogotoonsen

After running past farms and an area filled with houses, I crossed under the highway and continued on a small road uphill. This was clearly not a popular hiking trail. I began to wonder if this whole trip was a bad idea, especially when I stumbled across what was clearly a warning sign. Using Google Translate, I ascertained cars weren’t allowed on this road. I wondered why this was, imagining a crumbling, washed out road or a road that just petered out into the forest. I decided to try anyway.

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Would you go up this road?

The road climbed steeply through the tranquil forest. As a result of disuse, the asphalt was slowly being reclaimed by the forest floor. I was utterly alone, and I soon removed the headphones I habitually wear, especially when running the roads. I wanted to listen to the sounds of the forest. Then I saw a grey, rounded something moving through the trees in front of me.

Boar. It must be a wild boar. I had read that there are wild boar (and bears!) in Japan, and I was fairly sure I had just seen one. Visions of the creature ripping my stomach open with sharp tusks flashed through my mind. What should I do? Should I turn? I was far away from help if anything happened. Why don’t I have my med kit on me?? I decided the best course of action was to try not to surprise the boars. I needed to make noise, so I started to sing. At first I was so nervous no lyrics came to mind, but the singing heartened me and soon I was belting out my favorite tunes like I was being judged on Idol.

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Alone in the forest

Soon enough I had finished climbing the scary, boar-infested road and found the connecting trail that lead me to the main Kyoto Trail. Thankfully, the Kyoto Trail is copiously marked (although in Japanese) and frequently travelled. I soon heard the tinkle of her bear bell, and met a Japanese hiker making her merry way through the forest. I wished I had a bear bell. I noted that the change in my running vest pocket made a jingling sound when I ran, but since I was mostly powerhiking up hill the effect was limited.

The trail did a series of steep rollers, ascending ever higher. Heavy rain on Friday had rendered the soil slick, and I took the short, steep descents very carefully. I passed over the smaller summits of Mizuiyama and Yokotakayama, and I knew that Mt Hiei was next.

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What a beautiful world! On Yokotayama

The area near the summit was filled with different temple complexes, and the trail ran parallel with the highway. Of course the summit is the most developed place in the area! I thought. The temple complexes were cool though, especially the one with the raked zen garden.

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I believe this temple is called Jodoin.

The summit itself was a total anticlimax. There was a huge radio tower on top, gated of course. So I couldn’t even climb the final meters to the summit! This fights against my unholy desire to get to the top, but there was nothing to do about it. So I went back to the viewpoint that all the other hikers had stopped at (for obvious reasons!). It was a hazy day, and the view point overlook the hills north of Kyoto. The haze turned the hills into the layers of gauzy blue, mountains beyond mountains.

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Selfie ‘on top’ of Mt Hiei.

I was able to follow the Kyoto Trail downhill, and make much better time with less route finding than uphill. As I descended, it gradually grew hotter and hotter until I felt like my brain would actually cook into a mush. I couldn’t imagine grinding out the last 5 kilometers on pavement back to my apartment, and decided to treat myself to an air conditioned bus ride once I got down.

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Descending through the forest

I spent the rest of the run daydreaming about finding a vending machine that sold a particular grapefruit juice I have developed a fondness for. Imagine my delight when I got to press the ice cold soda can into my sweaty hand, and drink its contents on an air conditioned bus!

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Cold grapefruit goodness.

Conclusion on Mt Hiei? There are probably better access routes that that abandoned road to get to the trail. A nice run once I got to the trail though.

Here’s how the rest of my week went down.

Monday: Rest day. One hour of strength yoga (was sore for a couple days afterwards, hence less strength work this week than last).

Tuesday: I decided to play with bigger volume (running more kilometers) this week, and so I went for a fairly long run on Tuesday. I went to check out a small peak on the outskirts of Kyoto that’s been on my radar for a while, namely Daimonjiyama. I had to run about 4K on pavement to get to the base, during the course of which I meet a friendly Chinese runner who recognize my UTMB (OCC) shirt. He was on vacation with his family, and just sneaking out for a morning run along the river.

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Friendly Chinese guide.

It was a perfect day, sunny but for once not oppressively hot. I was delighted by the new trails, and happy to meet yet another friendly runner, this time a Japanese, who asked if I had lost my way. (I hadn’t, I was just studying my map to make sure I knew exactly where I was!)

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From the summit, all of Kyoto lay spread out before my feet. 

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The downhill trail passed by a waterfall, and through beautiful open groves of trees. I did this run at a leisurely pace, but rest assured I’ll be back - to take down all of the QOMs on the mountain!

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17K, 461 vertical, 2h17min 

Wednesday: Easy recovery run to Umekoji park near the train station. I met what seemed to be an entire high school Ekiden team running laps around the park. Although I had been feeling sluggish at first, their energy spurred me on and I sped up considerably as I ran a couple laps in the park. 6.6K, 0 vertical (yup), 40min + 20 min easy yoga

Thursday: Another longish run, this time on pavement. I ran the Philosopher’s Walk and then the Imperial Palace park. So much sightseeing done while running! My legs felt light and fast, so I rolled out some fairly fast kilometers with minimal effort. My legs aren’t quite used to running at this speed, so I felt the effects the next day.

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Selfie along the Philosopher’s Path. The trees will all be changing color soon.

14.6K, 60 vertical, 1h24min

Friday: Recovery run, to Umekoji park and then Kamogawa river. I felt like crap, but meditated on the Trial of Miles as described in the immortal running classic Once a Runner. 7.6K, 41 vertical, 46min + strength training

Saturday: Mom came back to Kyoto after a week of work in other parts of Japan, and we went for an easy run. I took her to the Philosopher’s Path, although we took the subway a little ways out and back to make the overall mileage shorter than on Thursday.

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Running for the camera under a giant torii.

7.3K, 39 vertical, 51min

Sunday: Mt Hiei adventure, 24K, 1029 vertical, 4h1min


Running: 77.2K, 1628 vertical, 10h

Two yoga sessions, one strength session

- The Wild Bazilchuk