We woke up late in Yudanaka. I’m pretty good with sleeping on the floor, and it’s certainly preferable to shitty guesthouse beds, but it will be nice to sleep in a really good bed at home. The baths are only open from 4pm to 9am so I didn’t shower. We walked up past the station to Chamise Cafe for coffee and food. I got a lunch plate with chicken and rice and salad and Jake had French toast. I also had a muffin with miso that was hot and tasty. I noticed a Matsumoto Brewery beer, so it must be regional and bigger than just the city. Shiga Kogen beer is also everywhere; it comes from the onsen town of Shiga Kogen nearby.
We took the bus from the station to Kanbayashi, where the walk to Jigokudani monkey park begins. The bus is primarily a tourist shuttle, but I was fascinated by the handful of elderly townsfolk who clearly used the bus as their primary form of transportation.
Jigokudani monkey park is a main attraction in Yamanouchi and apparently famous. It was founded in 1964, and about 160 Japanese macaque monkeys live there. It’s famous because the monkeys are known to bathe in the local onsen (they originally entered onsens at hotels but one was built for them, thankfully).
We had a beautiful walk through snow covered trees and forest, with a river below. All of the people we passed were heading back the other way. I think most people go in the morning, so I was happy for our late start. The sun was shining and even though it was cold, it was a great walk, and was over too soon (it’s only 1.6km and surprisingly flat, which took us maybe 20-25 minutes walking leisurely). The path was really muddy, which I was unprepared for, so initially I complained. I quickly gave in, though, walked on the edge of the path as much as possible (there was a steep drop) and just enjoyed the scenery. You can hear the river a couple hundred feet down, and there was still a little green. We got to the park and converged with the river. There’s a little settlement (not sure you can call it a town) there that has a hotel or two. It’s pretty, nestled in the mountains with peaks behind.
We entered the park and I almost immediately heard monkeys. I spotted the first few along the cliff across the river. There were a few dozen people around, and the area you’re restricted to isn’t huge, but it didn’t feel crowded at all. We walked down the path and to the main section, where there were monkeys chilling in the onsen and more on the cliffs above and by the river below. A park worker yelled at anyone who got too close or who used a selfie stick (against the rules, love it) and periodically threw some food to the monkeys. They are wild animals but only to an extent; they’re fed regularly by the park workers. They were certainly much more active and wild than the monkeys we saw in Arashiyama, though. It felt much more natural. Sign after sign warns you against feeding them. It’s funny, signs here have often been extremely aggressive, and these were no exception.
The monkeys were really cool, even for someone as reluctant to praise animals as I am. They were so indifferent to the people around, walking right through the people clamoring for photos and just doing their own thing. Some were lazing around in the water but most were pretty active. There were also a lot of babies and young ones, and it was really fun watching them play and try to climb. You can get much closer to them than is generally allowed. There was a remarkable diversity of sizes and fur and colors and temperaments, I thought. Male macaques don’t stay with one troop their whole life, instead migrating among a few different troops and mating. The Japanese snow monkey is the northernmost non-human primate, and is unique to Japan. I snapped lots of pictures and tried out portrait mode with the monkeys, and hopefully one or two come out okay. It’s the kind of thing that’s so much more experiential in person than comes across in a photo.
When we had had enough monkey time, we walked back through the forest along the path, which felt much faster than the way there, and stopped for a hot chocolate and churros at Enza Cafe, right at the entrance to the path, as we needed to wait for the bus back to Yudanaka. The hot chocolate was a mix and the churros were a little weird, but it was a fine place to sit. I feel like I’ve been to places like Enza and Chamise a thousand times, cafes that act as waystations that could be anywhere, with solid but generic cafe fare and atmosphere. I don’t know exactly how to explain. Not a bad thing, just an observation.
We took the bus back to Yudanaka with all the other tourists, most of whom hopped on the train to return to Nagano or wherever else. We stopped at Lawson, where I got some wipes and cleaned my shoes off. I’m loving these Johnston & Murphy waterproof sneakers. They look a little dressier than sneakers, they’re so comfortable for walking, and when they get wet or dirty they are easily cleaned and dried. The waterproofing has been flawless so far, and while they do run a little hot (because they’re waterproof so inherently not as breathable), it’s not uncomfortable.
We sat and looked at the snowy mountains as it got dark, and then stopped at American Drug, a big drugstore that was pretty much the equivalent of a CVS or a Duane Reade. I always enjoy the vast assortments of different items here, like all the instant noodles. We went back to the ryokan to relax a bit before dinner. We scheduled our private onsen time for 7:30 tonight, so we had to eat a little on the earlier side.
There was a Chinese-influenced restaurant right around the corner from the station that sounded good, so we decided to check it out. It turned out to be empty except for the owner, who spoke no English but was very friendly. We ordered fried rice, vegetables and gyoza and I chose one of the two sakes on display. I tried to ask if it was local and he didn’t understand so he brought out his wife, who spoke only a tad more English but was able to tell me that both were from the region. It was pretty good, and the food was decent. I liked the place; it felt truly local, a departure from a lot of the places we’ve seen lately.
We returned to the hotel and changed into our yukatas, and washed before heading to the onsen for our scheduled half hour. At first I thought it wouldn’t be enough time, but the water is hot enough that you really don’t want to spend more than 20-30 minutes. By the end, you’re pretty steamy (to match the steam rising from the onsen) and want some water. It was just as relaxing as last night, as I emerged feeling thoroughly cleansed. I’d like to go to some other onsens for comparison, but this one is pretty great. I could get used to this.
We were done pretty early, so we did some planning for Tokyo and got to bed, as breakfast at the ryokan is bright and early.
Wishing I were a monkey and could sit in an onsen all day,