Japan: Nagano Macaques – Losing my Mum at Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani, Yamanouchi, via a shonky Shinjuku Airbnb

macaque snow monkey close up of face japan

It wasn’t snowing, but we went to visit the snow monkeys anyway. (I always feel I should write snow ‘monkies’). I hadn’t anticipated that this was also the day I would lose my mum.

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.

surprised macaque snow monkeys

I can’t recall the exact description the Airbnb gave of the place, but I’d distinctly recalled something about it being able to sleep up to 8 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. Sleeping 8 would require a sardine-can like effort.

“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. She grew up in New Zealand after the war, one of the very first of the baby boomers. She was one of 8 children, and used to get oranges, and pegs dressed up as dolls, or something similar.

“We can’t stay here!” my daughter declared in a defiant teenage tone, before she started sobbing.

shinjuku fashion college buildingshinjuku street scene

Holding my breath, I surveyed the space trying to hold back from dry reaching. I gulped some air through my mouth and thought: 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. So, “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 Nagano station.

shinuku tokyo stree scene

“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 travelers. And we briskly exited, and within 25 minutes we were heading back into Shinjuku station to try and catch a Shinkansen, having had a lightning quick stop at Maccas (McDonald’s for non Australians) along the way, like Pikachu would have.

At least on our way to the station we got to quickly glance at the Shinjuku fashion college and  these cute Hello Kitty road signs.

shinjuku fashion college windowhello kitty road signs shinjuku

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 quickly found the Shinkansen booking booth.

“Nagano?” I asked.

“Yes”, said the lady, “train is leaving in 15 minutes. 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 running on our way, loving the efficiency of the Japanese who knew there was no time to question whether the foreigners would make it in time. ‘They must make it time!’ I’m sure was the only thing she was thinking, ‘They must!’.


I don’t know if it was really platform 8, might have been 23 or 14, it’s not really that important 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, seems likely, though the google trip planner thingy suggests we might have have been able to get there directly on the Saiyko line. But, 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 inquiring about the availability of another nice Airbnb in Matsudo which we’d stayed when we first arrived in Tokyo.

stream and building snow monkey park

Skip to the next morning. After making inquiries 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 sweet 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 bus to the snow monkeys.

stream with water spray snow monkey park japan

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.”

“Oh, yes”.

“Where do you get them?”

“The other side of the station. At the tourist information centre.”

forest snow moneky park

Oh my God (f#ck), I thought, the next bus after this one wasn’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.

path in forest snow monkey park japan

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, focusing entirely on my next move, running for my life back through the underpass, so we could get the bus, due in the next 12 minutes. I grabbed the tickets and I was off. I heard the imaginary voice of the shinkasen saleslady, ‘you must make it! You must!’. 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, and then asking someone else who doesn’t know what they’re doing, then believing that person.

The area 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 bathhouses, restaurants, and a vending machine.

snow monkey with baby

“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. Poor thing, she was almost 60.

“Ok”, we said as we collected all the Yen coins that had been gathering in our pockets.

trees snow monkey park

“I need a coffee”, I said and inserted about 300 Yen and out popped a can. “Woh”, I said as I picked it up and juggling it from hand to hand, “that’s a hot can of coffee” yes a can of hot 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 but the yen were running low so I just shoved the hot ones in my camera bag to cool down, grabbed a couple of sodas for the kids, and a bottle of water, and headed off after Nanna.

mossy tree snow monkey park japan

There was a gift shop at the entrance to the park, it was at the fork of two paths, one heading right towards the snow monkies, and the other going further up the hill along the road.

“I hope she’s taken the right path” I said, meaning right as correct, rather than the right direction, as we needed to go left, probably goes without saying. Anyway, we went left and continued along the damp track expecting to find Nanna just ahead of us, sitting on a bench. But no Nanna. We though she must be just a little up the track, so we walked a bit further, and still no Nanna. And we walked and walked, and then we walked some more, and that eerie feeling that a wild boar had dragged her off the path started coming over us.

“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, obviously not worried about the wild boar.

“I can’t just lose her in the forest”, I said, feeling kind of responsible for the well being of the woman who gave birth to me and suffered the roller coaster ride of my twenties when I was a bit of Bohemian pot-smoking vegetarian hippy type.

rock formation snow monkey park

We kept going expecting my mum to appear after each bend, but with each turn there was no sign of her. We started to realise 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.

snow monkey walking along path

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.

snow monkey walking along nagano

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.

snow monkey jumping  macaque snow monkeys in water onsen

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.

macaque snow monkey sitting in front of stream baby macaque at snow mokey park onsen

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.

macaque snow monkey close up of head

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.

lizard at snow monkey park nagano

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.

macaque snow monkey onsen in background

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.

snow monkey on rock at onsen

More Japanese stories: Hiroshima.