Following on from my last post in Shibu Onsen, we’re off to a freezing but very fun day of monkey sighting! Early in the morning after the lovely 10 course breakfast, we headed out into a slightly lonely but serene town centre where not a single person could be seen. This is the effect of the Japan earthquake 2011. A town that should have been bustling with tourists and locals was put into a deep sleep, only to be woken by the echoes of our footsteps.
Snow Monkey Park
We took a bus from the main road which led to the entrance of the Snow Monkey Park. The bus dropped us off about 2km away as the bus could no longer climb the snowy, mountainous paths ahead. Everything was covered in a thick layer of powdery snow that is so perfect for skiing. I didn’t mention this in the last post but if you’re into skiing, boarding and any other form of snow sports, Nagano and Shibu regions are perfect for that. In fact, if you squint your eyes while on the main road in town, you can see part of the runs that are so popular with tourists around that time of year.
Nagano, many many years ago, hosted the Winter Olympics so as you can imagine, it’s a very cold place.
We walked past a gorgeous hidden shrine that was surrounded by pine trees covered in snow. We were obviously the first to enter its grounds that day, or in fact, it could have been a number of days as there was not a single footprint in sight.
I felt a bit bad breaking the silence and footprint-less ground but we just had to get close for a better look.
It was so spiritual and serene I felt like I was taken back in time…or better yet, I felt like I could have been in a dream. Light snow was falling on my face as I edged closer and all of a sudden a gust of wind blew and disturbed the silence. Yuye was caught amidst the snow falling from the tree branches…it was a hilarious but exhilarating sight.
I was naughty. Very naughty. The pure white snow that is so fluffy that I could almost eat just had me so intrigued. I just had to. Please forgive me shrine kami (god)…but it was for a good cause I assure you…it was to satisfy a foreigner’s utter desire to do so…
And then I fell…
Yes, I did a snow angel on the ground. It was so cold but so satisfyingly happy that I didn’t want to get up.
I had enough fun to have been satisfied to not even see monkeys, but of course we were that far already. Off we went. The entrance of the mountain said ’1.6km to the top’. “Still??” Yuye exclaimed, but I really wanted to go…I was in love with these monkeys from BBC’s Planet Earth who love their hot springs…
The path was quite narrow the whole way up and very cold and wet. As the temperature was gradually increasing, some of the snow on the path had melted and created mud puddles. It also made it a little dangerous as sometimes the trodden snow piles turned into ice and became quite slippery. The scenery on both sides made it all better though.
I didn’t want to look down as it looked very painful to fall, even a little bit…pointy trees, branches and snow piles that made it hard to see was everywhere…it was a steep hill indeed.
We walked for what seemed like a century. Not a person was in sight…We did walk past a little pagoda that people obviously use as a resting spot but the chairs were covered with snow so no one wanted to sit there.
This place seemed like a forgotten secret as we walked past trucks that were completely covered in snow…
Until we finally reach some signs of life. Not sure what these buildings are used for, maybe it’s a ryokan? Or the mountain rangers/monkey keepers live there?
We caught sight of the first few monkeys. As it was very cold and still a fair distance to the springs, some monkeys were smart and used hot water pipes as their source of warmth.
I don’t want to know what these monkeys were doing…
We finally reached the gate to the monkey park. I believe it cost about 500yen per person to enter and there was a room full of monkey information, photos and souvenirs. I was so stupid and didn’t realise the room was heated. For owners of DSLRs and live in cold places, you’d probably know what happens when you go from a freezing surrounding straight to a heated room – yes, the lens fogged up! I couldn’t see a thing. As soon as I realised this, I ran outside again in a frantic attempt to clear the condensation.
The monkey sightings became very frequent after the gate. There were some foraging for food in the snow…
To huddling mothers and babies…
To monkeys lying around picking and eating fleas off each other.
And then I saw it. The hot spring. It was actually very small, a lot smaller than what I imagined it to be. Apparently the monkey keepers look after this area and this hot spring was specially built for the monkeys to enter – i.e. it wasn’t a natural occurrence! I was a little disappointed at this. But having this hot spring does keep a lot of monkeys away from the town where they sometimes roam (and steal fruit from the shops).
I was also told that in summer, monkeys don’t like to enter the hot springs so in order to keep the park profitable and keep the tourist flow going, the keepers often would throw food into the hot spring so that monkeys would enter it to eat the food. This is starting to sound a little too commercial eh…
Nevertheless, it was still such a wonderful experience (for me anyway). As soon as I got there, I grabbed out my camera and started snapping away while Yuye sat around being bored and cold. Very cold. It was snowing after all. I’m sorry Yuye! It’s all for the blog.
On Planet Earth, David Attenborough narrated that there was an ‘emperor’ monkey who would always be the first to enter the hot spring. I picked out that this was the emperor because a lot of little monkeys always surrounded him and helped pick out flees for him. He also had this ‘this feels soooooo goooooooodddd’ look on his face.
His wives and children are allowed to enter with him, while the other monkeys (who have no rank) sits on the side and freeze. I totally saw this happen! I spotted this poor little mother and child sitting by the spring side, huddling in a ball and shivering. They never did enter the hot spring while I was there, and I was there for over an hour.
It was good for me though as the monkeys were not scared of people so I was able to get very very close….
Can you see what the little monkey is doing in this photo? I only noticed it after I took the photo but he was staring at a ball of poop!!! YUCK.
The monkeys bath in there, drink from the water and poop in there as well. I wonder if it ever gets cleaned because if I was a monkey, I wouldn’t want to sit in it let alone drink from it! This monkey was doing a number 2 as well straight into the water…:( Sorry if I’m yucking anyone out…
There was a little monkey that kept wandering to where I was standing so I took quite a few shots of him, until he started eating a plastic wrapper. I guess even in places like this where there’s really not many people, littering still happens and the effects are immediately noticeable. Wish I could tell the monkey to not eat it!
Other than me, there was also a few other monkey enthusiasts who refused to leave. He’d often get in my way and I’m sure I got in a few of his photos too.
We were told not to feed the monkeys but there were some bad people sitting on the side offering snacks to the small monkeys so they’d get closer.
I took so many photos that day. Over 1300 in fact so I won’t put too many more here, I’m sure you’re all getting sick of looking at them by now.
On the way back to the ryokan, we walked past a beer brewery. It’s the brand of beer that we later on had for dinner. Beer breweries are so fascinating.
We went back to the ryokan feeling very cold, but just in time for a huge feast of a dinner again. This time, it was just the 2 of us, with the whole dining area and literally the whole ryokan to ourselves.
Day 2 Dinner
Again it was an 11 course kaiseki style dinner that was intricately prepared with the freshly ingredients. This time the menu was not printed, rather it was written on a piece of paper with very nice handwriting.
Course 1: Smoked duck, marinade smoked salmon and biscuit of butterbur miso. I really liked this entree dish. It was intricately displayed and tasted fantastic. I didn’t know what butterbur was but even then I’m still not sure how they were made into miso.
Course 2: Today’s sashimi – tuna, bream & yellowtail). Having sashimi names spelt out for me is such a luxury. I’m terrible at recognising fish (apart from tuna and salmon) and often get names wrong, especially at sushi trains. These sashimi pieces were very fresh and tasty.
Course 3: Japanese egg-pudding, or otherwise known as chawanmushi. It was light and silky smooth which is always a good sign. Not as packed full of ingredients but this dish was still a great course.
Course 4: Cooked scallop ad Japanese radish. This was a light and refreshing dish that had a faint taste of seafood. The scallops were hidden underneath the radish.
Course 5: Teriyaki carp. Another beautifully presented dish – I love the plate that it’s on! The carp was full of flavour and wasn’t dry. The red thing is not actually spring onion but rather, ginger. I was quite surprised as I had never seen it before but it tasted exactly like pickled ginger.
Course 6: Fried ball of mushroom and Chinese yam. As you can tell from the dish, it was very delicious and crispy, sort of like tempura.
Course 7: Pot of Shinshu beef and vegetable. The beef was very tender and juicy, almost like wagyu.
Course 8: Udon – a bit plain but still quite nice as it had tempura batter to add flavour and texture. However, I couldn’t finish all of it since there were just so many dishes.
Course 9: Soup with shrimp paste and yuba (tofu skin or bean curd). The soup was so clear I could see right into the bottom. I loved this soup, probably the best soup I had on the trip. It was so refreshing and palate cleansing and tasty…
Course 10: Pickled season’s vegetable – I liked that night’s pickled veggies as it was so vibrant and tasty.
Course 11: Musk melon. This melon is the best I’ve had, it’s similar in taste to rock melon except a bit sweeter, but the skin is the same colour as honeydew.
Rice was also served.
As mentioned above, we ordered a local Shiga Kogen Miyama Blonde beer which was shared between us. It’s made by the company called Tamamura Honten in the local region and packaged there as well.
We had such a great time that day, I can still remember it like it was yesterday. After dinner, we went back to our rooms and soaked in our little private onsen, then after being all refreshed, we sat around the kotatsu with a bottle of sake from Takayama and drank till I was dizzy and jolly. It didn’t take much sake to make me that way though which was a shame but I sure had a very good sleep that night!
Breakfast was nice and early, this time with 9 courses to start the long train riding day.
Day 3 Breakfast
Course 1: Nattou – fermented soybeans. This was the first time I had nattou and I frankly didn’t like it. It’s dish where people either love it to bits or hate it with vengeance and I’m the latter. It was sticky (VERY sticky) and bitter as well. I didn’t understand how people would like to eat this but I know a few people who really truly do like the dish. In fact, it’s a Japanese staple that an be bought even in convenience stores and is often consumed with rice for breakfast.
Course 2: Cooked seaweed with vegetables. This was a cold side dish that went well with rice as it was a bit salty.
Course 3: Broiled flatfish with miso. Again it wasn’t a bad dish, it was perfectly marinated and seasoned but not too strong in flavour. The flesh was tender as well.
Course 4: Vegetable and tuna salad – a somewhat western dish that was creamy with lettuce and tomato and of course, flaked tinned tuna.
Course 5: Cooked radish with sweet miso. This dish is a cold entree with a very soft and juicy radish and perfectly sweet miso. It went very well with some rice.
Course 6: Chicken Yanagawa – pot of chicken cooked in soy sauce with beaten egg and slivers of burdock. There was a raw egg that we cracked and poured into the pot ourselves which was then swooshed around to make an eggy soup with chicken. The chicken was very tender.
Course 7: Miso soup. The miso soup was great as usual, every time there has been different ingredients though. This time it included tofu skins.
Course 8: Pickled vegetables – just as good as the night before, but shame that I couldn’t finish it all though since I couldn’t even finish my rice.
Course 9: Fresh juice. I must have not taken a photo of the juice because I couldn’t find it anywhere, either that or it wasn’t served but I’m sure it was. Either way, I couldn’t say much about it since I don’t remember a thing. I think it would have been another apple juice as apples are a local specialty.
Rice was also served as per usual.
We had to make the 9:30am train because we wanted to go to Hokkaido but this didn’t end up happening anyway due to train cancellations…I had to cancel my hotel bookings as well. As we rushed to make our train, one of the ryokan’s staff (not sure if he was the lady owner’s husband or something) drove us (with lightning speed) through the tiniest little lane ways all the way to the train station. I felt like I was going to fly out the window. It was not the safest trip but I must thank the owners SO VERY MUCH for being so understanding and trying their hardest to accommodate our needs. Because we didn’t even have time to buy tickets, the driver got out and asked the ticket gate staff to just let us in. We had little pieces of paper stamped to say we’re legitimate and we could purchase tickets when we reached our destination. It was a heart thumping experience that I wish I could have less of really.
Instead of another few wonderful days in Hokkaido, we ended up heading back to Osaka and we stayed there for another week before heading back to Melbourne. There’s a few more posts about the meals we had there.
Yuye and I will actually be heading to Tokyo tomorrow so the next time I post, I will be writing in the comfort of my hotel room in Tokyo! I’m not sure if I’ll be able to write much while I’m over there but I’ll try to as much as I can. Till next time!
Question time: Have you ever had a planned trip or portion of a long awaited trip canceled because of some unforeseen situation?