Thursday, March 22, 2018

Nagano - Japan

All of our Japan itinerary, hotel and travel information can be downloaded here.

Day 6
Today we travelled to Nagano with the main point of the visit being to see the famous snow monkeys! The train from Tokyo to Nagano station is about 2.5 hours and is covered by the JR pass we now had activated.  The ride itself was very beautiful and from our comfortable seats the vistas from the window became gradually more mountainous and snow-capped.  

These chocolate crisps were actually Ok

To save time, even though we had our bags, we decided to try to connect to the monkey park from Nagano station prior to travelling to our hotel (which was around an hour commute from the station via another train).  At Nagano station we bought the one-day pass to the monkey park which is 3,200 yen for adults or 1,600 yen for children and covers:
·         One-day unlimited use of the Nagaden Train
·         One-day unlimited use of the Nagaden Express Bus between Nagano Station and Kanbayashi Onsen
·         One day unlimited use of the local Nagaden Bus between Yudanaka Station and Kanbayashi Onsen
·         Admission to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

Considering that the entrance to the monkey park is only 800 yen for adults but the train or buses aren’t covered by the JR pass, it is just about worth purchasing if not just for convenience.  We marginally missed the train from Nagano station, so we took the bus instead which was convenient and comfortable. 

Snowy landscapes were very different from urban Tokyo

Upon arrival, there was a slushy and icy tarmacked road to negotiate before we reached the approach walk to the monkey park which was as much a highlight of the visit as the park! The forested and snowy lane was a peaceful and beautiful scenic experience.  Needless to say, Kate and I exchanged the odd snowball over the 30-40 minutes it took us to get to the entrance of the park.

Evidence of the hot springs that attract the monkeys

The park itself was quite busy with tourists, many of whom like us must have travelled to the region purely for this experience.  The park is not expansive, there are only two main areas you can go and staff are regularly feeding the Japanese macaques to encourage them down from the mountainous areas to be within photo shot range of the eagerly snapping visitors.  Monkeys therefore have the ability to go where they please, but with such readily available food there’s little reason to stray too far meaning there are an abundance of snow monkeys, some so brave and habituated to the tourists that they are impartial to camera phones in the face.  Others are a little grumpier and keep their distance. 

Tourists enjoying the monkeys

Japanese Macaque posing for photo

The hot spring area (which isn’t open to human bathers by the way) is the place where you’re most likely to see a number of tourists gathered round hoping for that prime National Geographicesque shot of the bathing monkeys.  We were fortunate enough to see one in the middle of the spring, perched casually on a stone whilst a few others came and went with their main intention seemingly to have a drink from the spring. 

The photo you show your friends

The reality!

If you like nature and you like monkeys, I’d say it’s worth the visit (which can also be done as a day trip from Tokyo).  Don’t expect it to be an ‘at one with nature’ experience, more of a competing for elbow room to get that wonderful shot which doesn’t necessarily reflect the experience in the slightest.  However, where else are you gonna see monkeys hanging loose in hot springs?  As we waited for the bus to take us to the little town of Yamanouchi-machi where our hotel was located, a lovely & giggly shy Japanese couple who were heading back to Tokyo with very limited English offered to drive us.  It was such a sweet gesture and we accepted.  After a fair bit of traipsing around we were glad to have comfortable and direct passage to our destination! Thank you both!

Yudanaka Seifuso

After our comfortable but small budget room in Tokyo, we had booked ourselves into a nice, traditional Japanese Inn known as a ‘ryokan’ called ‘Yudanaka Seifuso’, not cheap but in the top three hotels in the area and with its own ‘onsen’ (hot springs bathing facilities).  It was everything you would expect from traditional Japanese accommodation, sliding doors, paper walls & futons on the floor for beds.  

Room at Yudanaka Seifuso

It was shoes off upon entering the accommodation and run by a family, with hospitality normally reserved for family.  Traditionally speaking, men and women bath separately, and nude.  Fortunately, there is a private onsen here which is open to couples, so Kate and I got to enjoy the experience together in the privacy of our own bathing facilities, we certainly felt like VIPs!  

Onsen at Yudanaka Seifuso

We struck gold by dining at a traditional local restaurant –I didn’t capture the name as it didn’t seem to have one in English, but further research suggests there are a lot of homely, similarly priced traditional style restaurants in this town!  We got adventurous with some horse sashimi.  It actually looked a lot like tuna but the taste was quite unique and the meat itself a little chewy, but overall quite nice.  We then had some chicken katsu style rice and a hearty bowl of ramen, all washed down with some local beer. 

Restaurant in Yamanouchi-machi

Horse sushi washed down with local beer

I can’t move on without mentioning the amazing, traditional breakfast at our ryokan.  At 8am we had a knock to come downstairs where there was a tray of miso soup, pickled vegetables, fruit and a large lump of salmon waiting for us.  Absolutely incredible and even though there wasn’t much else to see in this quaint little town, we were sad to be leaving the hospitality of our hosts.

Breakfast at Yudanaka Seifuso