As a young U.S. Marine many years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting and living in Japan and learning about Japan’s culture, studying the language and meeting many new and interesting people. As we see in the Spartan world, this is very much the same when we go to races and work with people on the course as we traverse it.
In interviewing Coach Hiro Nakano, a Spartan SGX coach and expert in waterfall training, I learned more about the Japanese culture and ways in which athletes train in Japan.
One of the most interesting concepts was how closely the training resembles the Spartan philosophy. One specific area, attitude, directly maps to the waterfall training done at Mt. Inunaki.
You need a positive attitude to want to do it, do it, and embrace what you get out of it.
In Japan, Mt. Inunaki is situated in Izumisano City. This is where the hot spring resort, as well as Shipporyuji temple, headquarters of the Inunaki school of Shugendo, which is one of the oldest Shugendo temples founded by En-no-gyoja about 1,300 years ago is situated. In the precincts of the temple, 28 pilgrim spots are recognized: some are in the main Shugendo training halls, some are near waterfalls, some at rocks, some at smaller Shugendo halls, and others at small shrines, so that many visitors can experience making a pilgrimage. The name Inunaki (dog barking) comes from the legend that when a hunter was about to be attacked by a giant snail in the mountains in the era of Emperor Uda (887 to 897), his dog barked furiously and sacrificed himself to save his master’s life. On the way to Shipporyuji temple, you can see tombs of fine and faithful dogs. The hot spring resort located along a stream at the foot of Mt. Inunaki has an atmosphere of a quiet mountain village, with various seasonal attractions, including mountain cherry blossoms in spring, and fireflies and kajika frogs in summer.
It is here that the waterfall training is conducted, allowing those on a pilgrimage to take part in a spiritual challenge as the culmination of their training. When the challenge takes place, there is risk involved. You are out in the elements, and anything can happen, much like a Spartan race. The training also develops mental toughness by allowing those who do it to learn to “accept everything.” That means the challenge, the amount of water, the water temperature, slipping and falling, any and all unexpected dangers from taking the pilgrimage and learning to endure the time spent under the waterfall. To accept it, one must keep a strong positive attitude about the situation they are in.
Coach Hiro Nakano has undergone Spartan training as well as the waterfall training. Here are some of his thoughts on doing the waterfall training at the temple.
Rob Shiminoski/Spartan SGX: What is waterfall training like?
Hiro Nakano: The waterfall training is very special and also dangerous. From my personal experience, even though it is very risky it is one of the things you have to try in your lifetime as a Spartan. I think it is very difficult to place yourself in situations where the activity is simple but the situation is tough. Even though you create this kind of situation, you can easily escape from it. You can walk away and quit. But Spartans do not quit; we adapt and overcome. As for fellow Spartans, you know the importance of overcoming your weakness. The best way to overcome weakness is to find a way to “create your unfavorable situation and put yourself in it. “This might apply at your work, home, social life, and anywhere. Go have lunch with an unfavorable coworker or your boss. Accept whatever your wife/husband has to say on a day-to-day basis. Simple physical activity but tough mentally, and I feel this is one of the best situations you can be in to build your mental stamina and strength.
RS: Can you describe some specifics of the training?
HK: When you’re training in waterfalls, we do it to symbolize many things such as overcoming fear and meditation [the loneliness] and to embrace the fear of the unexpected. We accept the coldness of the water. We accept that we are one with nature and thus, anything can happen in nature. Rocks can fall from the top of the waterfall.
To do the training, we first don a set of white clothes called “Shirosozoku” which looks like white robing. This white clothing is used for various Buddhist trainings and we consider the “holy cloths” that we wear when we pass away or when we accept and face the challenges that might result in death. (Samurai used this white clothing before they did “Harakiri” suicide). Before you go in to the waterfall, you will be praying for safe passage and safe return. Also we give thanks to the waterfalls, mountains, ancestors, and “Fudo myo-o” as the guardian of the temple and the waterfall outside of the waterfall. When we go into the water [before the waterfall] we will pray and give thanks again. Once we have done this, we then face the waterfall. We then shout our names, age and wishes. Once this is completed, we will [usually a group of three or five people] climb up the waterfall for a few meters while holding on metal chains to a secluded spot where the training will begin. The training can be up to three to five minutes long. Lastly, we sip holy water from the mountain hill and you have completed your training. Depending on the season, the toughness will vary.
RS: What are your biggest biggest takeaways? And how to they translate to Spartan Racing?
HK: I went this year on Feb 4 and it was minus 1 degrees outside, which meant it was freezing out. There was a 20-minute wait outside until we got to the waterfall. The water was bone-chilling cold. As mentioned before, the natural dangers of being in ice-cold water, icicles could drop from the top of the waterfall, climbing under these circumstances . . . all challenges one would have to endure (and accept) to complete the training. Much like a Spartan race, when training for it, you won’t really understand the difficulty until you are climbing the mountain and descending, the heat (or cold) and the elements are attacking you, the nature (bears, snakes, other elements) are there as additional risks. All of this points to the seven pillars of Spartan and what we do as Spartans to develop mental toughness and acceptance. Just like when I went in February and it was so cold it was difficult to breathe, so painful, causing your heart to beat so rapidly that you think it may stop—this waterfall training is to empower your tenacity.
Also, much like Spartan race training, the waterfall training shows you that you can overcome obstacles, challenges, and risks. And when you do, what you learn from it lasts a lifetime. You face yourself. You overcome.
RS: Thank you, Coach Nakano, for sharing your experience. Are there any other points you would like to make to our Spartan community about the training and its importance?
HK: First, if you can ever come and visit and do the training here in Japan, I highly recommend it. It is a challenge, but you will learn a lot about yourself. It is also very beautiful here. I think the biggest thing to take from this is to remember the seven pillars of Spartan training embraces the idea of camaraderie, total fitness, and mental toughness. Spartans never leave anyone behind. We are fit and we work to be better versions of ourselves. Then there is mental toughness. The ability to stand and fight against a challenge can be in itself a challenge. The more you place yourself around discomfort and become comfortable with it, the easier life’s challenges will be. When doing training of any kind (Spartan, waterfall) it is important to remember why you are doing it. You are trying to challenge yourself and the reward is not only completing the challenge but what you learned as a part of doing it. I think this is the biggest takeaway one can receive. When you go home, don’t let the little things bother you so much, don’t get discouraged when your training doesn’t go as planned, try not to let a challenge ruin your excitement of doing the challenge itself. With that, we can all as Spartans embrace this and take that away from the training and grow from it into our future selves.
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