Day 17: The Snow Monkeys: 14th May 2017

Yesterday was our first wet day so we decided to postpone our visit to see the snow monkeys and to do some domestic chores instead. First on the list was our washing. We located the launderette that was within walking distance. The area where it was situated was quite down at heel. This is something quite common in rural Japan. My image before coming was one of shiney stainless steel and glass. But this is far from reality. Rural areas are just that, rural simple places with a range of dwellings ranging from ‘just about’ detached houses to almost shacks.

Luxury is not evident anywhere.

Our host loaned us two umbrellas. He assured us not to worry if we lost or damaged them as he had plenty more. This is something we have noticed. Umbrellas are usually sitting outside public buildings for your use. They are transparent and must be issued free. Just as well as Barry’s blew inside out on the way home as we crossed the Chikuma river’s, very expansive, bridge. This river is, apparently, the longest in Japan. This information may help in your next game of Trivial Pursuits! Again our host claims that this is no big deal… Chikuma is the name of the city where we are and Togura Onsen is the old hot springs district.

We relaxed for the rest of the day and located a place for dinner. We were curious about it as the information said the chef made pizza and pasta! After almost three weeks of Japanese food I really fancied a pizza. Our host said that it was a fairly new restaurant and the place had not yet been broken in! So he came with us to help us order. He also wanted to translate the menu for his future guests. We had the best pizza we have had in a very long time, washed down with a glass of not bad red wine, served freezing cold but ok when it thawed out!

So Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny with a predicted temperature of 20°. We took the train to Nagano. We are getting very familiar with our local train line. Had breakfast there and found the bus for Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park. This was not difficult as the bus driver was standing beside the bus with a notice saying Snow Monkeys! It was a very luxurious coach. The trip was due to last 41minutes! This is how precise the Japanese are. It was a lovely trip again rising out of the valley up in to the low hills of the gigantic mountains that surround this valley.

Many of you will have seen the David Attenborough’s BBC production on the snow monkeys. I remember being totally fascinated by it. He made the show in winter, of course, which is the best time to see these lovely creatures. But spring is baby boom time so we were full of anticipation.

The bus arrived at precisely the correct time. We were astounded to find the most extraordinary building at the bus park. It is a Roman museum with a cafe! We did not work out how or why there is a Roman museum in this fairly isolated location. We decided to have a tea and coffee before we set out for the monkeys. The cafe was situated in a glass cone shaped building – fascinating. My tea came with pictorial instructions of how to deal with it to get the best flavour.

The story of the snow monkeys is an interesting one. In the early 1960’s a railway worker discovered these red faced monkeys in the mountains. For three years he came every day to feed them, eventually winning their confidence. He then decided to make his finding known to the authorities. The species was apparently dying out. Researchers and photographers descended on the place so the government decided to protect these animals. Research was encouraged and a hot pool was created at the side of the river. This river is very fast flowing with geysers shooting up in the air.

A single baby was the first to test the hot pool and soon his siblings followed. Finally the mother’s took the plunge. They soon discovered how pleasant the warm water was, especially during the three month snowy season. They are now completely attuned to this behaviour.

At this point the government realised what a tourist attraction this could be. But they wanted to protect the species at the same time. So they organised the place so that the monkeys were safe and happy and the public could enjoy them. The access by road is very limited, we had a lovely 30 minute walk in the forest before reaching the entrance to the protected area, which is a big area with a racing snow melt river running through it. The monkeys, macaques, are now completely at ease with humans in their midst.

They are so comical to look at. They have very humanoid faces with flat noses. Their hands and feet resemble ours with five digits. Their fur is so soft, like a very expensive fur coat! Of course you are not allowed touch them but there is a pelt on display in the information centre.

Unfortunately, or fortunately it was too warm for them to get into the hot pools but they were playing around. The mother’s were carrying their babies, either on their backs when they were a little bigger or on their tummies when they were tiny. Sometimes they just sat there hugging their babies and dozing off to sleep. The father’s take no part in the child rearing

Mother and baby

I never dreamed that I would be so lucky as to spend time with these fascinating creatures, so close to us humans in their behaviour. They just wander about oblivious to your presence, not constrained in any way. The keepers toss out food, looks like grains, from time to time. You can see them on the livecam, www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jpor try snow monkeys Japan.

Remember, Japan is 8 hours ahead of UK/Irl, 7 hours ahead of continental Europe, early morning in Europe is mid afternoon here.

We stopped at a cafe on the way back, we had beautiful sushi of salmon & avocado wrapped in seaweed, and chips! We set off for where the bus left us and happened upon a bus heading for Ilyama, where there was a Shinkansen station! We got the Bullet train to Nagano and a local bone rattler to Togura.

Another wonderful day out.