I am on a roll. Already on my second day of my Japan adventures did I manage to tick one important item of my travel list: the legendary – wait for it – snow monkeys. Yes, those that you see in documentaries casually chilling in the natural hot springs while a snow storm is dotting their white fur and wind is blowing around their red noses. (To be fair, their whole face is red.) And I went for real.
Weather and Expectations, Hold Up
Sure, those documentary people did go themselves as well, but being there in the flesh is something totally different. Boarding the pink bus that would take me to my destination Nagano, I was anxiously checking the weather report, hoping it wouldn’t show me yet again that the temperatures were increasing and no snow was reported. It was not.
So I sat there on my pink plush seat with a yellow joystick and small screen in front and distracted myself with retro sega games and films while the rolling hills and rising mountains passed my window. When all of a sudden I caught a glimpse of white in the corner of my eye, I yanked the curtains away and became glued to the window with a fierce Cheshire Cat grin spreading over my face. If the whole bus hadn’t been asleep, I am sure they would have proclaimed the strange woman with the hat as mad.
Arrived in Nagano, the snow had decreased but when I made it to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, everything was frosted. And my bliss was complete. Like a child I jumped into the high piles and getting stuck to my hips, I investigated icicles and snowy twigs until a monkey just passed my path. Like frozen I stood still in my tracks.
So not Camera-Shy
A snow monkey. And just 1 metre away. It did not even bother to look up as it decided to walk by me, nearly touching my legs. It was just a breadth away! While I thought that was a novelty, my temporary travel companion had already walked down the path and was surrounded by playing monkeys, prawling on the floor and crawling around her back, using her as a ramp.
I didn’t know where to look first, the two play fighting babies or the stretching big one that was rid of his flees by his harem. O maybe the one that was balancing on a metal stick and doing tricks while climbing down. Aaah, so much cuteness overload. And I hadn’t seen the hot pools yet.
So after I spent felt ages with the monkey gang by the bubbling stream (who cares, really, they were just too cute), I walked up the bridge but soon my way was intervened again by a bunch of teenage monkeys in a big group hug. I didn’t know where to step. This would continue all the way to the pools (not that I would complain), where I would finally encounter the famous picture-perfect bathing monkeys.
Getting all (Un)Bothered and Hot
One was having a nap and unknowingly served as the perfect tourist prop, another one was curiously investigating his mirror image while a mother was holding her baby tight sitting on the edge of the gorge. Need I mention I went camera-crazy? The reflections on the super smooth water surface, the milky white steam and colour palette in icy blue was just too much for me and my travel companion soon went her way because I was utterly consumed and in love with everything.
I still am and am so happy that my expectations were exceeded. Especially after the bad weather reporting. Funnily enough, after I came back to Tokyo, the temperatures were dropping again and took on those in the monkey park. But without snow and monkeys, it just wouldn’t do. Sorry, but no. One more thing I still need to mention. Inspired by my new animal crush and following a recommendation I tried traditional hot bathing myself.
I went to an onsen. And yes, it was awkward (being completely naked and showering in front of the female bathing party), but just because it was so in my head. The nice Japanese ladies didn’t think anything of it and showed me how it’s done. It really is relaxing but slightly on the way-too-hot side. I will try again.