Yudanaka and the Bathing Snow Monkeys
At the dingy, freezing-cold Nagano underground, we boarded the appropriately named ‘Snow Monkey’ train. Yudanaka has a lot of charm in its own right, but there is no doubt that its main pull is that of the photogenic simians. Living in Tokyo and being familiar with inability of seeing more than a hundred yards without a skyscraper blocking my view, it was nice to observe the relatively flat terrain, and to be presented with an unhindered view of Japan’s affluent mountains.
Upon arriving into Yudanaka, we were two of maybe ten people alighting, many of which looked to be heading off to the ski slopes. Indeed, everyone we talked to during our short stay would immediately ask us if we were there for skiing. A brief glance of the map told us that we needed to head up the steep hill to our left. With the jingle of the station’s tune in our ears we headed up. By this time it had been snowing for a good few hours and the compacted snow made for a slippery ascent. I had bought some walking boots for this specific occasion and was disappointed when they began acting like skates, rather than the sure-footed reassurances I had been hoping for. The Shimaya Ryokan was located near the top of the hill.
When entering we were greeted in friendly fashion by the couple who run the hotel. We were asked to take a seat while the owner talked us through the local attractions. He told us that he would take us to the Monkey Park the following day, as well as to a ‘local’ roten-buro (Open-air) Onsen. We were shown to our room on the fourth floor, which was a spacious tatami matt affair with a kind of conservatory area and a very flash looking air-conditioning unit which clashed with the otherwise traditional looking room. It wasn’t until the night rolled in that I was to realise how important a heater would be. We went out into the night looking for food and found a Nabe place. It was small and crowded but had a very friendly atmosphere. The cook had to shout for his wife to come downstairs and serve us. No doubt she was enjoying a little television. On that day I drank too much hot sake.
The following day we were driven to the monkey park by the seemingly fearless owner. I don’t know what sort of tyres he had on his people-carrier, but he paid little mind to the snow as he veered around each corner. Up and up, higher and higher we went. From where we alighted, the monkey park was still a fifteen minute walk through a beautiful snow blanketed valley. The lack of people added to the still atmosphere. There were even one or two Onsen joints located this deep into the mountains.
When we finally arrived at the monkey park – after once again ascending – we saw a few of the residents relaxing on the wooden steps. As we walked along the path, another strode blithely past us and began grooming another. Further along the path is a natural hot spring pool. Inside the pool, there must have been thirty monkeys, old and young alike, each of them enjoying the contrast of the hot water on this bitterly cold day. They were all busy with some sort of activity or other, but I’ll let the photos do the talking for this part.
On the walk back to the hotel we found a small shrine with an abandoned feel. We walked around the shops a little – many of which were closed – before we took refuge in a restaurant for some food.
Later, as promised, we were taken to the open air Onsen. Even the changing rooms had the feeling of being outside, the doors sitting ajar as they did. It’s an interesting experience to remove your clothes in sub-zero temperatures, your body no doubt trying to exert on your brain a little Darwinist common-sense. Into the bath however, and all was well. This was a great recommendation as the view was truly incredible. Over the edge of the bath, you had an unrestricted view of the valley and – clear day as it was – also right up to the surrounding mountains. I would recommend Yudanaka and the Shimaya Ryokan to anyone staying in Japan. It’s an experience that contrasts so much with the city life.
We left Yudanaka feeling refreshed, if in need of a little warmth to our bones.
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Have a better one!