What brought me to this quiet little mountain town of Yudanaka? What was the reason for taking the 5-hour bus journey from Tokyo to this little-known town on the outskirts of a ski resort? It wasn’t for the slopes, rather it was to visit the world-famous inhabitants of those mountains which could only be found in this one location worldwide. A natural phenomenon, one which has fascinated scientists and the general public alike for decades. Fascinating little critters that have brought a swarm of curious eyes from around the world to this quite little town. This is the home of the Japanese snow monkeys.
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First things first, I had to get myself into the mountains. My first target was the city of Nagano a couple of hours West of Tokyo and at the base of the snowy ranges. This would give me my first experience of Japanese long-distance travel, and what a god damn glorious experience it was.
I’ve been on plenty of shite buses/trains in my time. Japanese transport in comparison is fucking heavenly. Even more surprising considering that this was the cheapest bus ticket I could find for the journey! Enormous La-z-Boy style chairs able to recline near horizontal and enough leg-room even for my enormous 6ft 4 sized legs. Each seat even had their own pram-like cover to give an extra level of privacy. Hands down the most comfortable way I’ve travelled to date.
Once I arrived in Nagano, I just had to jump on a short train-ride to take me deep into the mountain ranges. Yet again the Japanese set out to fascinate me. The express train was almost styled to look like a retro speedboat, full equipped with wooden decking inside. The seats extended right to the front-end (beyond even where the train driver sat) with the enormous glass windows providing a spectacular view of the approaching surroundings.
The Perfect Home
As it was a quiet ski-resort town, the selection of accommodation was limited. Naturally there were plenty of dearer options available which I wasn’t willing to splash out for. With a bit of research I found the perfect place, precisely what I would want in such an environment.
The owner of the guesthouse I had found generally offered to pick me up from the station, and drove me back to his gorgeous abode without a single word of English. We arrived at an enormous wooden cabin with traditional Japanese rooms (which happened to be my first) with a log-burning stove in the common area, what else could I ask for. It was an old café which had been converted into a guesthouse, retaining that authentic customer care feel with the owner of the guesthouse fastidiously sat behind the counter in the kitchen waiting for a purpose at any given moment.
For more details on this gorgeous little guesthouse, check it out here!
A Moment With the Snow Monkeys
I was here purely for the monkeys, nothing else. So bright and early (-ish) the next morning, the incredibly hospitable guesthouse owner drove me to the parks entrance. From there I walked through the snow scattered evergreen trees as the path led higher into the valley.
30 minutes or so later it was clear i was nearing my target as the whisps of steam smoke signals rose behind the parks entrance. Sadly at the time, there was ongoing construction nearby due to the damage from a recent typhoon, however that wouldn’t take anything from the experience that was to come.
Before I was could begin full Attenborough mode, I had a quick bit of history to learn. A couple of decades ago, it took only a few curious young monkeys to delve into the hot-springs of a nearby hotel to begin an everlasting trend. Naturally such a spectacle became an amusing attraction and fascinating scientific observation. For the sake of the hot-spring loving monkeys, a special pool was specifically constructed just for them, where it remains today.
My timing was to perfection. I walked over the bridge to a swarm of monkeys that had gathered on the series of rock steps beside the monkeys pool. The crowds gathered in amazement watching the spectacular number of monkeys going about their daily businesses. Feeding, fighting, grooming and gazing at their surroundings.
Although in the past I’ve been nervous around monkeys, here there was no fear. The monkeys were within touching distance, and would even carelessly walk across the spectators feet as they roamed the area. These animals were clearly so familiar with human contact that they didn’t even register we were there.
After a while gazing at the stone steps, I turned my attention to the main highlight, the entire reason I was there; the monkey’s hot-spring. I spent hours gazing through the haze of steam at the monkeys in total relaxation sat in the toasty waters up to their shoulders, looking outwards onto the valley and what their monkey brethren were up to.
If a warm hot-spring wasn’t enough relaxation, the monkeys took the opportunity to give each other a much needed grooming. Naturally it’s necessary to keep clean and healthy, however research has found that the monkeys genuinely enjoy being groomed, much like a having a little massage. Massages in hot-springs, what a life.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
After spending so long watching these monkeys bathing in total nirvana, I wanted a bit of that for myself. Of course I couldn’t jump in with the monkeys, I had to find my own onsen; a Japanese hot-spring. Luckily I was in the perfect place. Onsens are huge in Japan, and here in the mountains is the prime location for them. There were an immense number of places available in this quiet mountain town, but which should I choose?
Well first, I had a big problem to overcome; my tattoos. Briefly explained, historically tattoos were used as a punishment to mark out a criminal. In recent years though one particular group of Japanese citizens have adopted this as a sign of pride IN being a criminal; the Yakuza. For many Japanese, they hate the sight of tattoos, particularly in onsens.
Now it is true that in recent years this has become an antiquated mindset held only by the older generations, yet many onsens still won’t allow admittance for people with tattoos. However as they’re such a big tourist draw, many have relaxed their policies. Some will allow small tattoos or ones which could be covered. Others require you to book your own private booth. Very rarely will you be able to find onsens which outright allow tattoos in their public baths. Luckily I found one; Ryokan Hakura.
Next problem was learning the etiquette of onsens. These aren’t just typical pools or hot-tubs, there are rules you should follow, the first of which was a surprise; strip to your bare ass. I hadn’t anticipated that, I’ve never really got my business blatantly out in public before. However, when in Rome.
Luckily neither of these would be a problem as I had the onsen completely to myself. Next step was to wash-up in the unmistakably Japanese style washroom placed directly next to the onsen. In true Japanese fashion, crouching down as I cleansed myself, feeling oddly uneasy at my nakedness and dangling bollocks. But all that didn’t matter, next was the orgasmic plunge into the near scolding waters of the wooden lined onsen.
My feminine touch is that I adore baths; candles, whale noises and all. I hadn’t had one in over a year. To have one in such conditions, was fucking glorious. I spent as much time there as I possibly could without passing out from the heat. An extraordinary way to end an unforgettable day.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.