Please note that this article was written in Jan 2013 and though mostly the same, some points may differ slightly from the currently available tours. Book a Snow Monkey Tour here!
Running through Tokyo station in the morning rush hour with a backpack on, past the obligatory bustle of commuters on their way to work, I started to question whether it had been worth stopping to take a photo of the sunrise on my iPhone earlier. Or maybe I shouldn't have stopped to buy a pair of gloves and a wooly hat at the convenience store before catching the train to Tokyo... As things were looking, I had just 3 minutes to make my way across the crowded station concourse in order to catch the Asama 507 rapid train to Nagano. Dodging grannies, schoolchildren and salarymen I felt like a champion as I bounded towards the ticket gates with 2 minutes to go. Feeding my ticket through the gate, I breathed a sigh of...
My ticket was rejected. I felt a cold sweat coming on and pictured the train pulling away from the station without me on it.
"Can I help?" Came the voice of the station staff. "Let me see your ticket. Ah, did you use a SUICA IC card to come to Tokyo? I see. Yes, you have to touch that on the IC sensor at the same time as inserting your ticket. Yes, that's right."
"Thank you!" I called back, leaping up the escalator, two steps at a time.
As the train pulled out of the station, I finally allowed myself to breathe that sigh of relief I'd meant to earlier and reflected on how lucky I was that Japanese service is so helpful. Excited about finally getting to see the snow monkeys, I felt a little restless on the train. Looking out of the window I watched the city zipping past as we made our way out towards the countryside. The train stopped briefly at Omiya, businessmen got on carrying laptops and USB Wi-Fi. A little farther and the view turned into a landscape that bled intermittently between stretches of houses and fields. I looked for the businessmen again, but the car had become emptier. Mountains started to appear on the horizon, with their snowy white winter hats on. The sky was a cool grey blue, the sun was shining and despite how cold it was in Tokyo that morning, the countryside looked warm and inviting. Wispy clouds of dirty purple hovered above the mountains and the trees had turned from their bright crimson to a kind of sad soggy brown. Winter was well underway. Birds flew in formation over muddy green fields with clouds drifting and smashing off increasingly severe mountaintops. The closer the train got to Nagano, the more the beauty of rural Japan became apparent.
Arriving in Nagano, we were greeted by our guide, Hitomi san. The group all got acquainted as we moved quickly on to the Nagano local train system to make our way to the first port of call.
From the station, we walked a short distance up the hill towards the temple. The weather had taken a turn for the strange and the blue skies had been replaced by grey metallic clouds. The sun peeked through the clouds at times making the stones on the bright wet street glisten and twinkle. As we walked I chatted to one of the members of the group.
"You have to advertise it more," he was saying emphatically.
"Yes, you're right."
"I mean, we looked at doing this tour ourselves. We added up the cost of doing everything separately on our own and compared it to the price of this tour and we found that the price you offered was so much cheaper. You really should make a bigger deal of it."
"I'll see what I can do," I said as a large gate came into site.
"That's Niomon gate," came Hitomi san's voice from the front as the group paused a while to admire the scene of the gate with the imposing dark clouds forming above it. "Nio are guardian demons of the Buddha. If you look closely at that one there, his mouth is open. He is making the sound "a". If you look at the one on the other side, his mouth is closed. He is making the sound "un". This is a Japanese approximation of the first and last letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. These sounds represent the beginning and end of the universe and this is where the Sanskrit concept of "aum" (The Absolute) comes from."
"Ah! Hmmm..." We all listened intently.
We turned in the other direction and wandered through the courtyard to the main building of Zenkoji Temple. We washed our hands before entering the temple and stood at the top of the steps listening to Hitomi san's explanation about the long history of the temple, how it was founded by Yoshimitsu Honda (The first two characters, 善光, of Zenkoji are taken from his name) and how it had burnt down in the past a number of times due to worshippers staying in the building overnight and not being so careful with candles. One thing that drew my eye was an old worn statue at the entranceway to the temple. As I was standing listening to Hitomi san's explanation, people would constantly come by and touch a different part of the statue. When she had finished talking, I asked her about it.
"Oh, that is Binzuru. If you touch a part of the statue, it will heal that part of you, if you are sick."
We turned back on ourselves and passed through Niomon again and wandered down a street lined with an assortment of shops and restaurants. We were stopping off at a local place for soba noodles - a specialty of Nagano Prefecture. After we wolfed down a delightfully fresh and delicious meal, we had a bit of time to stroll the street and have a look around.
After that interlude, we made our way back to Zenkojishita Station and struck out on a course for Jigokudani Monkey Park.
Jigokudani Monkey Park
As we made our way on the train to Yudanaka Station, I looked out of the window at the fields of chestnut trees and listened to this conversation between one of the boys on the tour and our guide:
"Why do the monkeys sit in the water?" Asked the boy.
"Because it's warm," replied Hitomi.
"Can we go in the water too?"
"Well, you can, but it's very dirty. You see, the monkeys get very relaxed and..."
"Ah, I see." The boy looked out of the window.
Upon arrival at Yudanaka Station we switched to a bus which would take us into the mountain. The bus had great snow chains strapped to its wheels which rattled and made the ride a little bumpy. Within minutes we were all marveling at how easily the bus climbed the steep roads up the mountain.
The walk from the bus stop to the pool where the monkeys bathe is a fair distance and it really is advisable to wear some sturdy boots and warm clothing - I was ever so glad I had stopped to buy that pair of gloves and woolen hat earlier. The walk from the stop continues along a woodland path which happens to have some great views and wonderful scenery along the way.
As we were walking along the path, all of a sudden we met a fellow coming the other way...
We must be getting closer!
Hey hey we're the monkeys!
Finally after a wonderful walk through the woods, we reached the Jigokudani Monkey Park. Jigokudani means "hell valley" in Japanese, but the name could not be more incongruous with the place. The valley itself was extremely picturesque and the pool where the monkeys bathe is nestled in the fold of the valley. Describing the monkeys is fairly difficult, and everyone who I have spoken to when I show them the photos of my trip asks me the same questions:
"Wow! How did you get so close to them?!"
"Don't they get angry?!"
...and so on. It's really quite amazing. The monkeys are so much at peace that you can go right up to them and they don't bat an eyelid. They are so peaceful and warm in the bath. The only word of warning that I heard that day was not to look them in the eye. The monkeys take this act as a sign of aggression and may get angry if you stinkeye them. But, they have no problem having their photos taken - in fact they seem to like the attention somewhat! Here are a few snaps I got:
After we'd had our fill of bothering the monkeys with our cameras, we left them in their nice warm baths and walked down to catch the bus back to Yudanaka Station. Having seen the monkeys enjoying themselves in the bath, I think the majority of us were pining for the warmth. When we got back to Yudanaka, Hitomi san took us to a hot spring foot bath, or ashiyu, that she knew near the station. While the rest of the group took their shoes and socks off and warmed their aching feet, I dashed off with my camera to try and grab a few shots of the sun setting over the mountains.
Everyone was quiet and content on the way home. I have travelled extensively throughout Japan, and the world, but this was the first time I'd ever seen a monkey taking a bath. I think we were all feeling the same sense of satisfaction as we sped through the dark on our way back to Tokyo via Nagano Station. A brilliant day, that's all I can say.