The Eye of the Monkey: Jigokudani Hot Springs
“No eye contact!” the photographer commands, as I step to the front of the line. I nod, preemptively repentant, and inch my way forward. The monkey is sitting peacefully on a fencepost, waiting for his next treat. I slowly squat down next to him, my snow boots sliding on the slick ice, as the photographer makes low hooting noises to attract the monkey’s attention. Just as I give my biggest smile, I see the crowd behind the photographer give a small gasp – and I feel a tiny hand on me. I instinctively look up and make direct eye contact with the monkey, who had lost his balance and caught himself on my shoulder.
As I peered up into his bright brown eyes, he seemed like a very small, furry, undoubtedly wise little grandfather. He cocked his head, made his judgment of me, then resettled himself on the post and looked back at the camera.
The famous snow monkey hot springs, more officially known as Jigokudani Yaenkoen, are a collection of natural hot springs nestled into a remote part of the Japanese Alps. Luckily, the 1998 Olympics (held in nearby Nagano) laid the transportation framework that makes getting to Jigokudani from Tokyo easier than one might expect. With two easy trains – the Shinkansen (bullet train) straight into Nagano city (90 minutes, 8000￥), followed by the Nagano Dentecu Line to Yudanaka station (50 minutes, approximately 1200￥) – you will be a ten minute bus ride from the entrance to the park.
From the entrance, you will walk about half an hour through the gorgeous forest to reach the snow monkey onsen, or hot springs. The trek through the forest is especially trekkish in the winter, when the path is covered by snow and ice, so be sure to wear winter boots with traction if possible.
The dense forest effortlessly creates a serene atmosphere, making the long walk to the hot springs a benefit rather than a burden.
Near the end of the walk, the path opens up to a wide view of the natural onsen area. There is a picturesque little village, surrounded by the rising steam of the natural hot springs and the pillowy snow, piled high.
Then, you’ll pay 500￥ for a ticket and be on your way to the monkeys!
The monkeys roam freely and happily all around the park area. Some lounge in the hot springs, while others play or forage in the snow. The monkeys, made famous by their National Geographic portraits, are completely at ease with people, and have no problem getting very close to you or being photographed.
Visiting the monkey hot springs is memorable both for the natural beauty of the setting and the easy playfulness of the monkeys. For an experience that is uniquely Japanese and unusually interactive and fun, take the time to visit the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Hot Springs.
And while you’re in the area...
Shibu Onsen Village: A Quintessential Japanese Experience
If you’ve ever read Memoirs of a Geisha, you’ve probably shared my longing to walk through Kyoto’s winding lamp lit streets, or to stroll along its riverbank and catch glimpses of geisha. If you’ve ever been to Kyoto, you’ve probably shared (at least some of) my slight disappointment. Gion, the traditional Geisha quarter of Kyoto, is undeniably beautiful, but also undeniably touristy. The river is largely dried up, and tourist shops easily outnumber the traditional businesses of Kyoto, which have increasingly hidden themselves from the public. During my experiences visiting Gion, the mystique of old Japan that I craved seemed to be as lost in the crowds as I was.
So, imagine my surprise when I trekked to a remote part of the Japanese Alps, only to stumble upon everything I’d wanted to find in bustling Kyoto!
My reason for being in the area was to visit the famed Snow Monkey Hot Springs which, to their credit, did not disappoint. But I was truly blown away by the nostalgic beauty offered by the nearby hot springs village of Shibu Onsen.
The Yokoyugawa River is the first sight for all those visiting the town. Though it lacks the kind of river banks boasted by Kyoto’s Kamo River, it is by far Kamo’s aesthetic superior. Its colorful bridges brighten the landscape, while the Japanese Alps frame the skyline in every direction save for the west, where the sun sets over city lights in the distance. In the evening rays the mountains blush pink, and the view is truly gorgeous.
After crossing the river, walk only a single block to be seemingly transported to a different era. The narrow streets are barely big enough for a car to pass through, and visitors and residents alike stroll from onsen to onsen in their yukata (lightweight Japanese robes) and geta (wooden sandals). The steam from the numerous natural onsen clouds the streets in a way that echoes the aura of 1940’s Japan.
The shops are quiet and, for the most part, family run. They sell goods for tourists in the form of traditional Japanese omiyage (souvenirs), generally small individually wrapped cakes or sweets. I was ushered into one said shop by an extremely kind elderly Japanese lady, who offered me tastes of the different omiyage her family has made for generations. As I tried each one – sesame pastries, strawberry rolls, matcha snacks – she proudly showed me family photos taken with famous Japanese people who visited her store throughout the years. (Needless to say, I left with omiyage).
Traditional hotels, some up to 400 years old, peek out onto the main street, preserved through time by the lack of modern developments in this sleepy mountain onsen town.
You can choose to enjoy the onsen or not, though I do recommend it. Some hotels open their onsen to non-guests, while others are private. Public onsen prices range depending on the establishment and the services offered, though my experience was only 700￥for an upscale indoor and outdoor onsen. There are often menus outside the hotels that list options in English as well as Japanese, so deciding is stress-free.
In summary, Shibu Onsen village has the kind of sacred, secret ambiance that makes even young children go quiet as they stroll the alleys with their parents. It was here I realized that, unsurprisingly, one must veer off the modern path in order to truly experience tradition. If you’re looking for a glimpse of olden Japan, Shibu Onsen town will not disappoint.
Website (in English): http://www.shibuonsen.net/english/