This was one of those days where you’re glad the camera has a good battery.
Jidokudani (known to most of the world as “The Snow Monkey Park”) is one of those places I’ve wanted to visit since long before I ever made it to Japan. Is it a tourist trap? Well, it’s certainly popular. I’m under no illusions that it’s unspoiled. But there are some such places that are pretty spectacular in spite of all that, and this is one of them.
If there’s a small saving grace, it’s that you have to do a little work to get to Jidokudani – about a 40-minute walk, in today’s case on very icy trails. That certainly doesn’t keep the crowds away but it does hold them down at least a little. Of course, that walk is one of the best parts of the trip – a 2 KM hike through gorgeous coniferous forest with a river of onsen water steaming away as it roars over rapids. The reward is a small but memorable park, where wild Japanese macaques (yes, they are wild – no fences to keep them from returning to the high mountains to sleep) have lost all fear of humanity and literally brush against your trouser legs as they scurry from place to place.
Surreal is a good word for the experience, I think. These are undeniably fascinating creatures to watch, with their very human mannerisms and expressive faces. These macaques are best known for bathing in the hot spring bath that’s been created for that purpose (to keep them out of the ones the humans at the 140 year-old ryokan next door use), 42 degrees Celsius year-round and a very good way to keep warm against the bitter alpine chill. But they’re everywhere you look – frolicking in the river, hugging the rubber hoses used to transport the hot water (those hoses, obviously, are agreeably warm), dotting the hillside on the opposite bank of the river. There’s nothing between you and them, which necessitates a lot of common sense – don’t pack in any food, don’t talk to them or stare at them, and for God’s sake don’t touch them. While I was there one idiot blew on one to try and get it to look at her camera. Tragedy was averted, but that was one pissed off monkey.
As cliched as it is to say, it’s really fascinating to watch the human parents interact with their kids right next to the macaques doing so. There was actually a Japanese TV crew there (this country must have more TV news crews per capita than anywhere in the world) and as always, they were anxious to put the gaijins on camera. I would love to have been there by myself, but I imagine there’s no day in the year when that would happen – I’d like to go to Venice or Kyoto and have St. Marks or Kiyomizudera to myself too, but even 3 weeks after the Tohoku quake Kyoto was still full of Japanese tourists. It is what it is – and that’s a pretty unique experience that I highly recommend if you can make it happen. The monkeys are great, but so is the journey into the beautiful alpine valley where they live.
Afterwards, I took the beautiful 3 km hike on the far bank of the river to Shibu Onsen, the small and rickety onsen town that has quite a lot of old Japan charm. There are 9 public bath houses in town but only one open to those not staying at one of the village Ryokan, and that one was closed today for reasons unknown (there’s almost no English signage in Shibu, but the Japanese man who showed up after me was just as puzzled). Fortunately they have a foot onsen (unbelievably hot) that I shared with a nice Japanese couple as I gave my aching feet some much needed therapy. Kimochi ga ii. And then a back to Nagano on the Nagaden express train – shockingly nice, on par with the Shinkansen (though not as fast).