Lovely though the onsen were, beautiful as the scenery was, my main motivation for coming to the mountains, to these particular mountains and this particular place, was of course monkeys. Specifically the so-called “snow monkeys” (actually Japanese Macaques) that live in the mountains and keep warm through the winter by immersing themselves in the natural hot springs. Familiar from wildlife programmes narrated by David Attenborough, my arrival in Japan gave me a chance to see this phenomenon first hand – particularly after I discovered that the monkeys don’t live in the far northern reaches of Hokkaido, but in the mountains of Nagano, a prefecture that can be reached in just 2 hours on the train from Tokyo.
So far we had heard monkeys, and seen shadowy glimpses of monkeys carousing on our rooftops, but the day we arrived had seen a distinct shortage of snow. However as we slept the heavens opened and we awoke to a literal winter wonderland. It is amazing how a blanket of snow can transform pretty much any view into something magical!
In fact, the snow was falling so hard, and in such volume that Janna talked me out of the early start I had planned. After breakfast we hung around the ryokan for a couple of hours until shortly before 11am. Then we grabbed a couple of umbrellas (complimentary for guests) and plodged through the snow to the bus stop.
The monkey park was actually about the same distance from the ryokan as the station, so we could have probably walked there, but not knowing the exact route and having so much weather to deal with, and with the fact it would be mostly uphill, we took advantage of the bus service. It wasn’t that expensive, really, a couple of hundred yen each, similar to a single trip on the Tozai line.
The bus had destinations announced in English but there were no shortage of other visitors for the monkey park, so we could have probably worked out the right time to get off. It was actually not that long into the journey. When we got off the snow was still falling steadily but gently.
We passed a Roman museum which seemed odd to me – I’m pretty sure the Romans never reached Japan – and followed the crowds up the hill away from the road. The odd tour bus came past occasionally, and there were a couple of hotels or maybe ryokans near the bottom of the hill. As we got further up we passed a restaurant with big banners outside advertising fried chicken – I stored the location in my head as somewhere to have dinner when we came back down.
Around the corner from this was the entrance. Well – the entrance to the path to the entrance. There was a gift shop, and a hiking gear rental shop – the advice on the brochures and large signs around the entrance was to wear walking boots because there had been several accidents involving people wearing inappropriate footwear. I apprehensively contemplated my boot-like trainers and figured they were close enough.
So, the path. It started off with some steps and then began winding around the mountain. It was quite narrow – only 2 people could fit side by side and had to go single file when they passed each other. On the left side, there was a pretty steep drop, albeit with plenty of tall, tall trees to break anyone’s fall. On the right side, for most of the way, there were little streams and brooks running alongside the path, and beyond that the steep slope of the mountain again, with more trees.
Occasionally there were distance markers, telling you how far you had walked and how far to go (eg half-way, and “not far to go now!”). There were also occasional signs with information about local wildlife. There was one shelter along the whole route (with some information notices inside it) and by chance I was standing under it when the biggest of several whiteouts arrived.
Occasionally, when the wind blew, or a branch high up gathered too much snow, it would give way and the snow would fall, cascading onto other branches, producing more falling snow, and starting an avalanche effect – but instead of rolling down the hillside as a solid, it just “floomphed” straight down on top of anyone who happened to be walking underneath. And it was sticky snow, it would stick to your clothes and then slowly melt leaving you damp and uncomfortable.
The first small one that happened caught me with my umbrella down, and I became snowman-ified. I spent a good 5 minutes dusting the snow off myself. Luckily I was wearing my hat. Janna had her umbrella up. The second one was bigger, but as I said I just happened to be standing in the shelter. There were a few groups in front of us and behind us on the path and they took the full brunt of it. Janna was outside with her umbrella but hastily stepped inside when we saw the white above us. Even in the shelter, enough came through the open walls that I had to dust myself off a bit, but the people outside were caught totally by surprise!
The rest of our trip we kept half an eye above us to avoid any more snow dumps. They seemed more prevalent on that particular stretch of the mountain though. The shelter was about halfway along the route. There was one other worrying part of the path where a waterfall basically poured onto the path and the slush and ice had been trodden down into a shiny, slippery surface, but it was well signposted to step carefully.
Eventually the trees to our left disappeared and we had a view of a beautiful river valley. If we looked carefully we could see a little pool on the other side of the river and through the falling snow, the shadowy figures of monkeys’ heads moving about in the pool. Further ahead there was a bridge and other figures moving about. We passed through a little village-type group of buildings but they were all closed up – perhaps this was the park’s spring and summer tourist operation? Opposite there were mopeds half buried in the snow that obviously hadn’t been anywhere for a while.
We came to another sign proclaiming the entrance – inviting us to climb up yet another set of stairs. Up we went, and at the top there was a building which turned out to be the real actual entrance – a place to buy tickets and a place to show someone your tickets to go through the gate. We went through the gate.
The path led towards a junction where you could either go up to a bridge over the river, to an area where a lot of people seemed to be gathered, or down to the side of the river. As we headed to the junction, someone hopped past us as though we were walking too slowly. It actually took me a second to realise this was a monkey. It started heading down to the river then just stopped by the side of the path. The people in front of us stopped to take its picture. I also tried to take its picture. It seemed quite shy and continually turned its head away from the camera, like Russell Crowe, or Prince Harry.
There were more monkeys up ahead next to the steps up to the bridge. Janna went and posed next to them. We didn’t try to touch the monkeys – we’d been warned not to, they have been known to bite. There were also warnings not to feed them, and not to carry anything in plastic bags. If you have a plastic bag, monkeys will assume it is full of food and try to take it.
We went over the bridge to where all the people were gathered, and of course this turned out to be the famous onsen. Not the one we had seen earlier – that seemed to be a more private, tourist-free place for monkeys to bathe. This one was anything but. A continual ring of tourists bordered the pool – there was a token fence to stop people getting too close and presumably falling in – on two sides, the other two sides being sheer drops to the river. About two dozen monkeys of all sizes were sitting in the pool. Some were sitting on the edges or moving around. Occasionally they would fight or scream at each other.
The ones in the water seemed relaxed. Some were on their own, several were mothers with barely discernible infants clinging to them. Some very tiny looking infants were more adventurous, swimming off by themselves. And there were a few groups where one individual was getting groomed by others. Sometimes whatever the groomers picked off, they ate.
There seemed to be a monkey highway from the first onsen to the second one. Part of the route was a thick cable which to the monkeys acted as a bridge, you could see them scrabbling along it and jumping over each other (my camera caught one pair getting jiggy on it). Then there were the big snow banks under a high fence – whatever purpose the fence served it wasn’t to keep the monkeys in or out, they just climbed up and down it at will. And from the snow banks they could clamber down to the tourist onsen. They didn’t have to go through the tourists, they could go round the outside and access the onsen wall, but many of them did anyway. Whether they saw us as an inconvenience, a challenge, or as entertainment, I have no idea.
A man from the park came and started throwing food down. A few of the monkeys stopped whatever they were doing before and raced to where the food fell, picking it up in continual motion from the snow, first one hand then the other. The man moved over the top of the snow banks dropping food in different locations. Before long all the monkeys were feeding and the onsen was empty. The tourists didn’t move though, they just started taking pictures of the monkeys eating.
I saw monkeys playing. One was on top of a tree and was using his body momentum to make it bob up and down like a swing or a seesaw. I saw monkeys bullying. We were watching three monkeys happily eating together on one little spot on a wall, when suddenly one of the “alphas” appeared, and all three scattered, leaving the alpha with the area all to himself.
The monkey park opened in 1963, but the monkeys had been coming for many years before then. I imagine that their numbers were smaller but because the park now offers them a free source of food throughout the winter, they are thriving and the population is growing. This is good for the park as it means there are more likely to be monkeys around when the tourists come. The monkeys are under no obligation to come and bathe in the onsen and eat the food, but in winter, when food is scarce and a warm bath is so very tempting, it is no surprise they are there pretty much every day. This is the only population of monkeys in the world that is known to thrive in cold temperatures.
We decided to head back down the mountain – all the monkeys were just sitting there eating now anyway. I checked out some of the information in the tourist building, but it wasn’t in the best English and I was put off when it described chimpanzees and gibbons as “monkeys.” We bought a couple of fridge magnets.
We managed to avoid any whiteouts on the way down, and very much enjoyed the fried chicken at the restaurant. We walked back down the mountain to Shibu Onsen, it wasn’t that far and had stopped snowing.
In the evening we put on our yukatas and geta (wooden clogs) and went to try some of the 9 public onsen in the village. It was snowing a little again, there was some ice on the ground, but it was fine to walk the short distance from ryokan to onsen. They were all numbered, and each had a male and female entrance accessible by the master key provided by the ryokan. After I put Janna in the first one I realised I had forgotten my towel and had to go back to the hotel for it. When I came back Janna was ready for the next one. She hadn’t been too impressed, it was pretty basic, just one room for undressing and another room with a pool in it.
We went for number 9 which was the biggest one. It turned out to have a sauna in it too, which was much more familiar ground for each of us. Initially I had the place to myself but while I was in the sauna another man came in. Janna shared both her onsen with a group of Japanese women. Eventually I left the sauna and (after rinsing off of course) I immersed myself in the pool. The other man suggested I could cool it down by adding cold water, but it was just the right temperature for me.
I must have stayed half an hour or so – it turned out Janna left just before me from the womens’ side. While I was curious about the other 8 onsen, I didn’t want to abandon Janna (because I had the onsen master key she must have gone back to the ryokan) and I guessed they would be largely the same. So that was it for my onsen experience!
WORLD PEACE KANNON BUDDHA
The following day we headed back to the station, but en route we popped up to see the Kannon Buddha. It turns out the path to enlightenment is a covered stairway, so it was relatively easy to reach the top. At the top was a courtyard, a museum building, and of course the 25-metre tall Buddha himself towering above us.
With time to kill before our afternoon train back to Tokyo we decided to enjoy the refuge of the museum against the cold weather, and learn a bit about Buddhism. To be honest, I didn’t learn very much – the museum staff could barely speak a handful of English words. There was a big drum, and to bang the drum brought good fortune. We banged the drum. There was a room with 33 bronze bowls representing the 33 Kannon statues in Buddhist temples around Japan. We went around the room and tapped each bronze bowl so it made a satisfying soft ring.
We went up to the base of the Kannon Buddha itself, which was on top of the building with the bronze bowls. We couldn’t open the door because of the snow. In any event, the slippers provided would have just gone straight into the snow leaving us with wet socks for the rest of the day. A little old lady who had been doing the bowls before we did was heading up as we were heading down. I tried to explain the issue with the door but I don’t think she understood.
We made our way back to the station and got the train back to Nagano. With lots of time before our train to Tokyo (I thought it was better to be safe than sorry) we explored the mall and had something to eat. Janna bought a variety of Japanese chocolate. I bought a tea-towel with the Hiragana characters on. Night fell as our train headed back to Tokyo, there would be no encore this evening from Fuji-san. There was no drama on this journey, and all we had time for in the evening was a little clothes shopping before Janna’s last night in Tokyo.
In the morning, I took her to the airport and she flew away. We had had an eventful week, we saw in the New Year, we saw emperors and samurai, monkeys and monorails, fireworks and dragons. Now I had 3 days of vacation left before it was back to work with another training day. However I am already thinking about where my next destination in Japan will be…