We caught the shinkansen to Nagano for the sole purpose of finding the elusive ‘Snow Monkeys’, otherwise known as the Japanese macaques of Jigokudani. The image conjured in your mind may be familiar, but this place plays host to over 200 monkeys that descend from the mountains to bathe in an onsen (hot spring). It had just entered mating season which meant there was no guarantee that they’d appear, but we rolled the dice anyway.
Nagano doesn’t usually feature in a ‘Must Do’ list of a Japan itinerary, but upon alighting at the station, I realised that this was exactly the kind of city we were looking for: cool air, busy but not overwhelmingly so, developed but nestled into a lush, green valley and < 1 tourists for every Japanese person I saw. It also has an interesting legacy. You can’t walk through the train station without noticing the multi-coloured rings, for Nagano hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics. The prefecture itself is also the home of soba noodles, oyaki steam buns and massive, gigantic apples.
Sadly, the dice we rolled gave us 1 as for whatever reason, the bus we were waiting for didn’t show up. This was after waiting over an hour and a taxi warden helpfully calling me a monkey when asked if we were in the right place.
Monkey Park postponed, we opted for exploration, having been told that Nagano City is the home of Zenko-ji, a 1400 year old temple that is said to house the first Buddhist statue brought to Japan. It did not disappoint.
As you take the 1km walk from the station, the concrete buildings gradually transform into traditional wooden storefronts, inns and shrines, giving the illusion of a walk into the past. Tatami floored stores selling buns, scrolls and darumas line the streets, all building the anticipation towards what lies ahead. It was easy to get lost amidst the bustle of hawkers and bandana-toting pilgrims, and the best part was, I had no idea I would even travel here.
Zenko-ji itself is awe inspiring. Its dark brown beams contrast with the usual red and gold aesthetic you find with other Japanese temples. Imposing 6 metre statues of Rajin and Fujin add to the mystique, and what’s more, you can even leave reborn. For around 500 yen, you have the opportunity to walk directly underneath the building via a pitch-black corridor. According to Shinto tenets, a padlock, shrouded in darkness, is what you must touch if you want to hold the “key to paradise” for the afterlife.
I vowed to lead Elise to nirvana.
Five minutes later I found myself cowering behind Elise in order to conceal a claustrophobic panic attack. My emasculation complete, we agreed on visiting the nearby onsen where I would run the gauntlet and risk further emasculation.
When researching Japan, you’d have a hard time not discovering the country’s abundant hot springs. There are over 3000 and many have entire resort towns based around them. At an affordable rate, visitors strip off, nudity etiquette varying from spring to spring, and bathe to their skins’ content. The only prohibition is tattoos. If you have even the smallest one, including those tiny stars on your ankle, you’re out. Tattoos in Japan are used to signify one’s affiliation with yakuza, Japan’s organised crime organisation, and these bad boys (and girls) are often denied entry.
Historically, I’ve not been averse to nudity – my penchant for speedos (since outlawed in my new relationship) is evidence of that. But there’s one thing being a foreigner, another is being a naked foreigner. So I approached this experience apprehensively.
Of course I had to pick an onsen that, as far as I know, has never had foreign customers before. Gaining admittance via a vending machine, because this is Japan, Elise and I quickly realised that we would be bathing separately. Segregated according to gender, Elise ventured into the unknown, and as I walked into the male-only locker room, I couldn’t help but feel completely responsible for putting Elise in this situation. Naked.
First came the pre-wash, and bizarre events started immediately. Before you step foot in the onsen, you must wash thoroughly. Stools are provided, where etiquette dictates you must sit, lather, scrub and shower yourself, and then cleanse further via the buckets provided. But before I’d even gotten here, an inquisitive skinny fellow for whom the term ‘manscaping’ didn’t apply, decided that he would be my guide.
I tentatively stripped down and noticed that my guide’s ‘helpful’ gaze was transfixed upon my member. Escorted through the proceedings, guide no more than 2 feet away, I walked from wash room, to jacuzzi room, to the eventual outdoor hot spring. I stepped in, steam rising as I did so, and entered bliss. Maybe that padlock had powers after all. I could have stayed there forever. Or at least I would have done if my new friend hadn’t insisted on following me from one side of the spring to the other. He was pleasant enough, asking questions about my life in very broken English, but let’s face it, he was more interested in confirming or disproving speculation of the ‘gaijin penis’. I would have done the same.
So there I was, surrounded by naked males of all ages with flannels upon their heads, the only foreigner bobbing around in a testosterone soup. A wall divided Elise and I, and all I could do was hope that she was feeling more comfortable than I was.
Later that evening, when we’d reunited our red prune faces, Elise confided that she herself had received abundant curiosity for her mammories. Would we do it again? Absolutely.
Hot Spring: Before and After
There was a happy ending to our Nagano tale and that was that we eventually did get to meet the macaques of Jigokudani. Located in a valley of forest, the most astounding feature of the monkey park was how obvious the social hierarchy was in this monkey park. I only saw two monkeys physically sit in the hot spring itself, and the others that tried were scared away by the head of the troop. Visitors are lucky in that you can get up close and personal with the primates as they traverse railings and edges with their babies hitching a ride on their backs.
Nagano was wonderful.
Nagano is located an hour’s bullet train ride north-west of Tokyo. Situated in the mountains, the city is often used as a weekend skiing break by the metropolis’ urbanites. It is a charming city, giving foreigners a sense of what urban life is like outside of the main hotspots. Jigokudani Monkey Park is an approx. 40 minute bus ride away and is well worth a day trip, not just for the cuteness overload, but also the beauty of the surrounding area.