Travel Stories

A travel blog for a long-term expat, backpacker, traveler, ESL teacher, and photographer. 

Monkey Madness

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After talking to a friend about her recent trip to Japan, a crazy idea was inserted into my brain - go. see. Japanese. monkeys. go. see. Japanese. Macaque. So with a decent amount of planning, I figured out the details and embarked on my long journey. At about 3:00 PM I landed in Osaka Kansai airport which is virtually on its own island from Taipei (starting at about 8 AM from Taipei). I rushed as fast as I could in the span of two hours to ensure that I made the train that only went once an hour to my destination. I made my way towards the Shinkansen station and by 5:45 PM, I made it and was on my first train of the trip, the bullet train. (Shinkansen in Japanese).

These trains are among the fastest in the world and can go up to 200 mph. After I bought my ticket, I scrutinized my ticket for a seat number. Apparently I had bought a "non-reserved" seat which basically means that on each train, there are two cars where people can sit anywhere and your ticket is slightly cheaper. I panicked for a bit when I had no idea this was a thing, but eventually I found a seat and relaxed for an hour. 

I was in a rather observative mood and decided to people watch the Japanese people surrounding me on the train. The train was bound for Tokyo so that majority of people were commuting business men in suits. To the right of me, I saw a man in his mid-thirties playing a Nintendo DS and some sort of Pokemon game. I looked in front of him, diagonally from me, and saw two men in their thirties with huge stacks of cards which looked (again) like a Pokemon card game. Lord know if they were trading or playing a game but holy shit, what was I looking at? Lastly, I looked between the crack of the seats in front of me and I saw a man with gray hair, approx. 50 years old, on his smartphone looking at Anime girls (you know, those cartoon chicks with ridiculously large eyes). I have come to believe that Japan is the country of thirteen year olds.  Other than the people, I was interested in the fact that each car had its own smoking room. I've been on my fair share of trains and that was a first for me (besides the really old Polish commie first class cars).

The streets of Suzaka

After the bullet train arrived in Nagoya, I switched to a slower, less impressive train. Regardless, within three hours, I was in Nagano. Nagano, unfortunately, was not anyway part of my destination. I had to then exit the train, leave the station, and follow the signs to the Dentetsu Line - which was the regional train that led to the snow monkeys as well as my guesthouse I had prebooked via AirBnB. About halfway to the snow monkeys was a small village named "Suzaka" which is where my guesthouse was. After arriving to Suzaka, I was surrounded by a snowy village that is probably the epitome of almost all video game and anime villages. (I watched my fair share of anime in my younger days). The streets were filled with ice and vending machines (Japan has a weird obsession with vending machines).

As I was stocking up on convenience store noms, I bumped into my guesthouse owner, Marina, and hitched a ride back to the guesthouse. The entrance/living room had a very quaint and comfortable atmosphere. Marina was amazingly helpful with planning out my next morning to see the monkeys, helped me find a bus back to Osaka/Kyoto (the train was ridiculously expensive) (and even took me to go buy it), and made sure I was more than comfortable in every way possible. I was immediately served tea upon arrival as well which added to my inevitable comfort.  Click the photo above or the link here to be linked to the Guesthouse Kura website.

I slept in a spacious, Japanese styled room (like the Korean hotel rooms) which consisted of a giant comforter on the floor. It was just as comfortable as a bed since there was a lot of cushion. The best surprise was that Marina has put a hot water bottle at the foot of the bed and I was in a little, warm, snug cocoon for the six hour slumber I had. I can't begin to describe how hard it was to get up in the morning.In addition, the guesthouse also had a shared kitchen, a lovely Japanese garden, and a toilet with one of those amazingly grand bidets. I swear to God, the Japanese really know how to go to the bathroom in comfort. As soon as you sit down, your ass is instantly warmed and relaxed and you basically lack all desire to move. mmmmm.I only managed to get one photo in the eight hours I was there unfortunately, but I'll link the guesthouse for any people who would love to stay there in the future as I highly recommend it as it is a very hospitable, inviting setting.

The following morning, I got up at 6:45 AM and was ready for the train from the station by 7:30 AM. It was probably another 45 minute journey to the end of the line, Yudanaka Station. From Yudanaka station, I bought a bus ticket to the monkey park, Jigokudani, and within twenty minutes, I was at the start of the hike. This place had much more snow than Suzaka and the entire walk was slippery and ridiculously snowy.

As it was a hike, I was going higher and higher and getting snowed on more and more. People in front of me had snow collapse off trees onto them which was mildly amusing. Along the walk, there were signs with fun facts about the monkeys "Monkeys don't sweat!" "Monkey's don't like when you touch them. If you do they'll steal your bag!" "Don't feed monkeys!" That entertained me as I was traveling solo and going slightly batshit from no one to talk to after a long, extended period of time. After passing a snowed-in pickup truck, a vending machine (of course, even on a mountain), and many stairs, I arrived to the entrance where I was required to pay about 5 dollars (500 yen) to go see monkeys.

As I was on the deck, ready to go around back, I jumped backwards slightly in shock when I saw a monkey just hanging out on the stairs I was about to walk on. Of course, my immediate reaction? PHOTO OP! Snap snap snap. "Okay, bored, next monkey." (pretty much exactly how it went down). I went down the stairs without disturbing the rather disturbingly calm monkey and found it easy to spot the monkeys because there were Japanese paparazzi surrounding each and every one of them, haha. Some were just chilling, eating snow. Others were bathing in a running stream.  After continuing down the road more, I noticed a giant, artificial (I am guessing since there was a hose running into it) hot spring bath with a billion monkeys relaxing. One monkey had a boogie board, other were picking things off each other's fur, and others slept in the warmth. 

They seemed pretty apathetic towards humans, especially the ones with colossal camera lenses aimed at them which was pretty cool. I guess this is equivalent to squirrels in New York City since they're constantly around people so therefore tame. As I went down the slippery stairs near the bath, I noticed a baby monkey chilling on the stair post. He poked me. He put his finger out and poked me, Facebook style. I, of course, jumped back, startled again but continued down to get right into the faces of the other monkeys with my camera. I was literally inches from some of them while trying out my new ultra-wide angle lens and they didn't even wince. Every so often, the monkeys would jump out of the water and drench the people and their camera bags in front of them. Sometimes they fought with each other, especially the younger ones, and screeched. It was amazing to look at them and see them in a more or less natural habitat and see their interactions with each other. They were such beautiful creatures, so similar to humans, and fascinating to watch (when I wasn't pushed and pulled out of the way by Japanese people trying to get photos that probably 10,000 other people have better photos of..)

I did try a selfie with the monkeys and got a monkey picking his butt. That was the best I could get while traveling alone.. ha ha. After leaving the bath area and heading back to deck where I saw my first monkey, I saw a couple of people staring at some monkeys underneath of it. An Australian couple had dropped a pair of sunglasses almost on the monkeys and were terrified to get them back.

It was compelling to observe the monkeys watch the people try to get close enough without getting mauled (or as they thought they would). They just looked up like the people were absolutely insane as they approached with extreme caution. 

Although I had an absurd amount of travel time to Jigokudani park, it was well worth it. The monkeys were stunning, natural beings and I believe everyone should be able to see these babies outside of the zoo. So, next time one of you are in Japan, take a trip to see the Japanese Macaque! Since you got this far, please take the time to look at my photos in full screen - they came out amazingly even though I spent my time battling snow and water on the lens.