It wasn’t snowing, but we went to visit the snow monkeys anyway. (I always feel I should write snow ‘monkies’).
My mum, Mia & Oskar and I, had travelled from Kyoto, back to Toyko, where we’d booked an Airbnb in Shinjuku. We didn’t get there until around 6 pm, following some vague directions the host gave us and trying to navigate ones of the world’s busiest stations, in Shinjuku – which seemed designed to overwhelm and confuse the occasional commuter to the point where you weren’t sure where up, down, left, right, or East and West were – wheeling our luggage along the way.
I can’t recall the description the Airbnb gave of the place, but I’d vaguely recalled something about it being able to sleep 4-5 people. When we finally found the place, with the help of a friendly Japanese lady with a Shiba Inu dog, and opened the door, the word ‘disappointing’ came to mind – there were three futon style mattresses crammed into a small room with barely a few millimetres between them, then a ladder leading to a little cranny with another futon mattress. The whole place stunk of body odour and there were long black hairs strategically placed around the place, like those rose petals they sprinkle into bath tubs at the fancy hotels, only gross, smelly and disgusting.
“It smells here”, Oskar said, always good for stating the obvious.
“It might be okay for a few nights”. My mum said in that stoic mum type of way.
“We can’t stay here!” my daughter declared in a sultry teenage tone.
Holding my breath, I surveyed the space trying to hold back from dry reaching. I’d been researching other places to visit in Japan and I was quite keen on seeing more macaque monkeys, after seeing a colony in Kyoto.
“Okay”, I declared, “this place is gross, let’s go to Nagano to see the snow monkeys”.
I looked up hotels in Nagano on Booking.com, using the wifi at the Airbnb. I was able to find a couple of rooms at a hotel right by the station.
“All right, let’s dump most of the luggage here, just grab some warm clothes and stuff for an overnight trip”. I informed the weary travellers. And within 25 minutes we were heading back to Shinjuku to try and catch a Shinkansen, having a quick stop at Maccas (McDonald’s for non Australians) along the way.
We were more nimble and agile without the bulk of our luggage in tow, so we were able to make good time through the still extremely crowded mass of humanity at the station. We found the Shinkansen booking booth.
“Nagano?” I asked.
“Yes”, said the lady, “there is a train leaving in 15 minutes from platform 8”, and without a moment of hesitation, and with all the skill of Las Vegas blackjack dealer, she had our four JR passes stamped, back in our hands and was pointing us in the direction on platform 8 adding a polite bow and, “please hurry”. And with a few arigatos we were back on our way.
At least we got to see the Shinjuku fashion college and these cute Hello Kitty road signs along the way…
I don’t know if it was really platform 8, might have been 23 or 14, it’s not really an important enough point of the story to worry about though – anyway, we were on our way, and I can’t even recall having to change trains, but maybe we had to jump off at Tokyo station, who knows now, google trip planner thingy suggests we might have have been able to get there directly on the Saiyko line. And in less than 2 hours we were in Nagano, in nice, non-smelly beds with the prospect of a full buffet breakfast awaiting us in the morning and with me enquiring about the availability of another nice Airbnb in Matsudo which we’d stayed when we first arrived in Tokyo.
Skip to the next morning. After making enquiries at reception about getting to the snow monkeys we sat down to some cappuccinos, hot chocolates, ramen noodles, udon noodles, ice cream, danishes, croissants, yogurt, corn flakes, rice, pineapple, watermelon, strawberries, fruit compote, orange juice, apple juice, muesli, scrambled eggs, poached eggs, toast – well the list goes on, it was our first buffet breakfast of the trip and the budget traveller always take full advantage of the breadth of calories on option, figuring that the rest of the day we could skip on a few meals – we had a little walk around Nagano, then headed out to the first bus to the snow monkeys.
We arrived at the bus stop 15 minutes before the bus was due to depart. I wasn’t sure if you needed to have your ticket before getting on so I asked one of the other people waiting, “do you need to have a ticket for the snow monkeys before getting on.”
“Where do you get them?”
“The other side of the station. At the tourist information centre.”
Oh my God, I thought, the next bus isn’t for an hour and a half, “I’ve got to go get tickets”, I declared to my mum and the kids, and with Sanic speed I was off through the Nagano station underpass, frantically seeking the snow monkey ticket box. I kept following the signs to the tourist information centre but I couldn’t for the life of me find it.
With only 8 minutes off fruitless search I found a sales assistant at a chocolate shop and rudely interrupted a conversation she was having with a customer, “Snow monkey tickets??”
“Downstairs” she said, and gestured to follow her to a nearby escalator, “down there”.
“Arigato!” I yelled as I ran down.
Now only 5 minutes to spare and still having to run through the underpass I ran to the counter holding a wad of cash, “four snow monkey tickets please”. I don’t recall the transaction, focussing entirely on my next move, running for my life back through the underpass”. I grab the ticket and I was off, panting and almost dying I arrived at the escalator on the other side of the station. Passengers were boarding, I couldn’t speak, I just distributed the tickets.
And then we boarded and I collapsed into my seat as we headed out to the snow monkey. No one looked at our tickets and I was starting to think that I could have just bought the tickets off the driver. Which turned out to be true – the joy of travelling, never quite knowing what you’re doing.
This was a rural as we’d been in Japan, passing well groomed cherry trees, rocky streams that wouldn’t be out of place in an old samurai movie, where some guys go down to catch very tiny fish or having a very honourable battle with a rather dishonourable fellow. After about an hour, we arrived at our stop and walked up the hill to the entrance, past a few onsen house thingys, restaurants, and a vending machine.
“We’re going to get some stuff from the vending machine”, I said to my mum, “do you want anything?”
“Just some water”, she said, “I’ll wait for you up further”. She marched up the hill towards the entrance to the park. Perhaps she was trying to get a head start on us for a few day s earlier when we were going to see macaques at Kyoto she didn’t quite make it up the hill and we ended up having to collect her halfway down the hill.
“Ok”, we said as we collected our Yen coins together.
“I need a coffee”, I said and inserted about 300 Yen. “Woh”, I said as I picked it up, “that’s a hot can of coffee” yes a can of coffee – too hot to comfortably hold in your hand more than a second. I really wanted a cold one so we tried again, “damn”, I said, as another hot one smarted my hand. Then we realised there was a hot and cold drinks section of the machine so third time lucky I got me a cold coffee and we shoved the hot ones in my camera bag to cool down, grab a couple of sodas and headed off after Nanna.
There was a gift shop at the entrance to the park, but also another path that headed right, going further up the hill.
“I hope she’s taken the right path” I said, meaning right as correct, rather than the direction, which probably goes without saying. Anyway, we went left and continued along the damp track expecting to find Nanna just ahead of us. we walked and walked, and then we walked some more.
“I thought we would have found Nanna by now”, said Oskar.
“Yes”, I said, I hope she went he right way.
“Well, we’re not going back for he”, said Mia.
“I can’t just loose her in the forest”, I said.
We kept going expecting her after each bend until we realised we’d probably lost Nanna for the first time on the trip, “She must have went right,” I said, “why don’t you kids keep going up further and I’ll go back and make sure she’s not waiting at the gift shop or something”.
I handed over the camera back to Oskar and jogged back down the path, scanning the steep sides expecting to see a Nanna somewhere down in the gully. We’d gone a few kilometres by that stage, and this was my second run of the day, something I rarely, if ever did. I got back to the gift shop panting and puffing again but feeling a bit like Vladmir Putin – iron man. Nanna was nowhere to be seen so I jogged down the road a bit further and surveyed the little cafe there, still no Nanna, I’d have to go break the news to the kids, hopefully she would show up at some point, so I jogged back up the hill, past the same mossy logs, trees and what have you, until I passed the point I’d left the kids and I could sense the end of the trail approaching. There was signs for wild boar, and deer, which titillated my imagination, and not much further along I was joined by my first snow monkey.
He walked along the path with me for the last few Ks, keeping a steady pace and not to perturbed by my presence. Finally, after rounding a bend and preparing to break the news to Oskar in particular, that Nanna was gone, I saw the three of them, staring down at me and waving from the top of the hill.
Just goes to show you can’t underestimate the speed of a 70-year-old Nanna. they’ll get away from you as soon as you turn your back.
It turns out at Nagano station I hadn’t even bought the kids entrance tickets anyway, and, as you’d probably expect, they were for sale at the gates. They even got a little snow monkey sticker to go with the tickets.
I was expecting many onsen, but there seemed to be only the one main one where the monkeys took a dip in. The rest frolicked and foraged by the rushing stream and up into the steep hills, jumping between rocks, crossing bridges, picking the tips from the grass and munching on it.
It wasn’t quite ‘nature’ nature as I’d see in Australia.There’s pipes and fences and things, but the monkeys themselves are wild and on this trip it was as close to wilderness as we’d come to.
We sat on the rocks listening to the stream and watching the occasional monkey wrestle, or scratching themselves along the paths or on benches. They were beautiful little creatures almost totally oblivious to the human presence, which numbered around 30-40.
And it wasn’t just the macaques that seemed to be in a zen state of tranquility, going about their lives. There was also this cute little lizard who didn’t seem too fussed on moving despite our close proximity.
The coffee cans had cooled down now so I skulled one back and took in a little bit more of the scenery before the Mia’s call came, ‘let’s go’.
‘All right’, I said, feeling grateful that daughter had been patient enough to give us this amount of time and also mindful that we had to get back to Tokyo.
We headed back down the path I’d now transgressed twice. Keeping my eye out for wild boar, thinking of the animals from a Ghibli film. We got the bus on the main road, headed back to Nagano station, booked a berth on the JR shinkansen back to Tokyo then sat down to the best soba noodles I’d ever had, and by far the best food I’d ever tried at a train station, along with my first try of sake I’d had in Japan, which I had to skull in order to make the train.
And with the last mouthful of the rice wine and only 15 minutes to spare, we all rose and rushed to the platform.
As far as I know the monkeys are still just back there chillin, wondering why all the less hairy creatures rush about so much.
More Japanese stories: Hiroshima.