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The Athlete's Way

Photography by Jason Halayko

Deep in the heart of rural Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan, lies the small town of Minobu. Its size belies its spiritual significance – it’s named after nearby Mt. Minobu, which devotees of Nichiren Buddhism have been making the pilgrimage to since the 1200s.

287 stone “steps to enlightenment”, known as bodai-tei, lead worshippers to Kuonji Temple at the foot of the mountain, which is the head temple of the Nichiren sect. From the mountain’s peak, you get a vista of the surrounding mountains including the unmistakable summit of Mt. Fuji.

Near this temple, there’s a “Shukubo” (a temple where worshipers can lodge) called Takeibo, run by Yuji Komatsu. Yuji is an ultra-distance runner known as the “Running Monk.” For him, following the Buddhist way and following the trails in his daily runs are complementary challenges. He doesn’t run to satisfy an urge for competition, instead he’s seeking spiritual calm and strength.

The path to prayer

Growing up, Yuji didn’t want to be a monk. His father, who was a monk, didn’t set a good example, instead he made Yuji doubt the value of dedicating his life to his religion.

“He [Yuji’s father] never practiced the Buddhist teachings and never seemed to be doing anything at all. I didn't want to become a monk just to inherit the family business, but my house was a shukubo. I always saw my mother struggle and listened to her complaints. My father didn't do a thing in the house and was always out golfing or driving his expensive car.”

But when Yuji inherited the family business, he wanted to help his mother so he put his other passions aside and set to work reviving the temple.

“I didn't have to be a monk. If I wasn't a monk... I wanted to work at a ski resort in the winter and a beach house in the summer. Just live a free life. Being a bartender, working in the food business, or as a lodge keeper all sound nice.”

Sport was, in many ways, Yuji’s first guiding force. As a youngster, he’d surf in the summer and snowboard in the winter. In his twenties he used to hike up the ski course because he didn’t want to waste his money on ski lifts — and he actually enjoyed those climbs.

A 375 km pilgrimage run

“I was basically running to snowboard. I only had the mountains around me, so I just ran them. I was running to do other sports, but it felt good from the beginning,” explains Yuji.

Slowly, Yuji realized that rather than seeing running as a way to do those other sports, running itself could be the end goal. He began to run more intentionally and, as he faced some personal challenges, including a divorce, he found the trails becoming an important place of reflection.

“When I was on the trails, I started to think that I wanted to challenge 100 miles. But I couldn’t join races because the timings conflicted with my work, and also there was a point in time when I was emotionally damaged in my personal life. I felt like I was being prevented from doing the work that I had been doing, like hosting trail run races and helping to promote Minobu Town — all work that was beyond the scope of a monk.”

Yuji decided he wouldn’t wait for a race opportunity to line up with his busy schedule, he would run 100 miles solo. It was a personal pilgrimage. He chose a route connecting temples related to the Nichiren sect and completed the distance in 28 hours.

This year, he pushed things even further and completed a 375 km pilgrimage run, which took him 5 days from a temple in Chiba prefecture where Nichiren Shonin was born, to Minobu.

“Running long distances alone has something to do with Buddhism. It’s not a ‘yes I did it!’ feeling when you complete the run. No one is looking and no one is waiting,” Yuji explains.

“It’s more like a ‘ok, let’s go home’ feeling, a feeling of nothingness, which is Buddhism-like. I love that you can just end it there with a very calm movement of emotions.”

Heart, body and running

The sense of tranquility in the mountains, the size of nature, and the ancientness of the earth itself is what attracts Yuji to trail running. He says that it helps him to feel more present in his own life.

“A life of about 80 years is less than a blink of an eye in the time span of earth. When you think about it that way, life is too short and there’s no time to waste. By running in the mountains, it becomes a valuable time of self-reflection.”

In addition, he says that when you run, your posture improves, naturally leading to positive thinking.

“The mind and body are linked. People who are depressed in their daily lives may have their backs curled and gaze down. If you ask them to run like that, they won’t be able to do it. Even in races, some runners walk like zombies. Of course they’re tired and are in a lot of pain, but they are most fatigued mentally. If you find yourself trudging, try bringing your chest out and swinging your arms, look straight ahead and move forward. You’ll begin to feel more energized.”

Yuji says that this also applies to your daily life.

“If you are troubled with something, bring your chest out. Your heart may clear up by doing only that.”

Leading by example

Yuji may be attentive to the state of his mind when he is running, but the moments when he feels closest to his inner athlete are not during those runs, it’s when he’s connecting other people to the sport he loves.

“Nine years ago, I started a trail run race called ‘Shugyoso’ (in Japanese this is a pun that sounds like ‘trainee monk’ but is spelled as ‘ascetic training run’) as a way to revitalize Minobu Town, which was a big challenge for me. Even though it’s a small race, if it’s held a few times a year it becomes a place where people can gather to run with their friends, and that’s why I keep organizing it.”

Despite the pandemic, Yuji was able to continue the race last year with a reduced number of participants and enhanced safety measures – it was a valuable outlet for a community that had been isolated by the virus.

“In this pandemic, many people are looking for connection with others. And in this divided world, you may be able to do everything on the internet, but it feels so much better and more fun to meet people face to face, breathe the same air and chat in person. There’s significance in providing those opportunities, and I believe in this challenge. That’s the athlete in me.”

Athlete in life

While many people call Yuji an athlete because of his running accomplishments, Yuji believes that everyone has the spirit of an athlete within them, if only they’ll let it shine. “For example, a lady in her 80s would visit a temple on the peak of a mountain by foot, wearing normal clothing,” explains Yuji.

“Climbing a mountain to carry your thoughts and prayers — now that’s an athlete in life.”

“You see big sporting events on TV, and it almost feels like the athlete status is a privilege for professionals. But anyone can shine, and everyone has an athlete side to them. That’s why I organize the races, but it’s really the same in your everyday life. If you’re feeling discouraged, look straight ahead, chest out, spend the day in good spirits, and you become the winner of the day.”

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