In Asia

Snow Monkeys near Nagano

Posted by: on Mar 8, 2011 | No Comments

On the train to Yudanaka station from Kyoto I started to wonder if it was worth the effort. From the window of the speedy shinkansen train we watched factory after factory, town after town slide by under the heavy, grey sky. We were on our way to a ryokan near a national park in search of snowy mountains, steamy hot springs and frolicking snow monkeys, but it was taking half a day and we weren’t really sure what we’d find at the other end.

Luckily, pessimists are rarely disappointed.

The town

Shibu Onsen night walk

The old town of Shibu Onsen, down the hill from where we stayed, was like walking through a movie set. Craig, the kiwi guy working (for many years) at the ryokan – Biyu no Yada – dropped us off at the end of the old town in front of a temple at around 9pm with a map to get back. It was a few degrees above zero and there didn’t seem to be anyone around. “Slide the doors open and have a look in,” he told us as we jumped out into the van at the temple. “Just make sure you close the doors after to keep the cats out.”

The area was eerily quiet. All covered in snow, our walk through the town was accompanied by the constant sound of rushing water as melting snow, hot springs and the river all combined. Steam rose up from the ground giving the cobblestone street a hazy yellow look. We snuck about the grounds talking in whispers, finding our way to a path glowing under the lantern light eventually stumbling into the main street of bath houses with a sense of awe and excitement.

The town isn’t far off from being a movie set, as we’d discover the next morning. On the way to the snow monkey park Craig stopped on one side of the bridge to explain it was the inspiration for the bridge in the classic anime film Spirited Away. He then told us to hold our breath as he ZOOMED to the other side of the bridge, heading straight for a brick wall as we crossed to the “other world”. (watch the bridge scene)

Shibu Onsen

The other film influence from the town is the Kanaguya onsen, also portrayed in Spirited Away. The 3 or 4 storey wooden building towers over everything near it, bending and creaking in interesting ways that modern architecture just can’t. The street had other peculiarities too. There was a natural hot spring pouring water onto a bowl of eggs which we saw a man stop to buy (Japan’s version of the late night kebab?), and a shop front with pellet guns facing rows and rows of toy figurines to shoot down.

Shoot em up shop front

As we wandered down the road we’d spot the occasional Japanese couple dressed in yutaka leaving a hot bath. It’s really the perfect weekend away; spend the whole time in a dressing gown, hang out in various hot springs and be fed multiple courses for dinner and breakfast.

And that’s the other thing we did.

The accommodation

Biyu no Yada was a great place to stay because, not only did it have a local Kiwi to translate for us, but it was also less traditional that most onsens. We had a traditional room with tatami and futons, a kaiseki dinner and natural hot springs. We could wander about without feeling like rude westerners, even though we were probably the only westerners in the hotel.

We were brave enough to try the private rooftop onsen even though it was only 4 degrees outside. The bath was so hot that we only lasted about 20 minutes before needing to cool down. Being on the rooftop of a 7 storey building on the top of a hill made for an amazing view too.

Later that night I tried the segregated onsens in the basement – indoor and outdoor. A few older Japanese women were already bathing so I made sure to have an extra good scrub before heading in, then, subtly watching them as they got out so I’d know the next set of protocols to follow. Once out, there’s an area with sinks decked out with moisturisers and other products to complete your spa experience. I’d highly recommend a visit to a bathhouse, and I’d love to go back to an onsen town near a ski-field. Kinda wish I’d made it to Sydney’s Korean Bath House before it closed some years back.

The food


Dinner was amazing. Craig recommended the local brew of Shiga Kogen Pale Ale which was a lot like Little Creatures Pale Ale, one of my favourite beers. Our table was set with most of the food, most astounding being the stump with mushrooms growing from it. Through sign language and demonstration we were told to pull the mushrooms off the stump and cook them on our personal mini grill.

The mushrooms at Biyu no Yada

There was raw thinly sliced pork for us to cook in a pot of water over a flame, and slabs of beef which tasted amazing after we cooked them over another flame in butter, onions and capsicum. But that’s not all. Plum wine, sushi, pickles, miso, rice, udon and dipping sauces were all laid out in front of us. Spoilt for choice, I spent as much time deciding which bit to taste as I did eating them.

Finally, the snow monkeys

Snow monkey

The snow monkey park is a 5 minute drive and 30-40 minute walk away. We donned some gumboots from the ryokan but were surprised to find it quite an easy stroll through beautiful snowy forest, except for an initial hill and a final set of steps. There were tall pine trees, perfectly built stone walls, a windy path and finally the valley with steam pouring out of various crevices. The area is named Jigokudani Park, which means “Hell’s Valley”.

Jigokudani Park

There were SO many monkeys and they were so cute. Once we spotted one across the valley we’d slowly start to notice movement all over. After paying our 500 yen entrance fee we got through to where the monkeys lazed about in the hot springs, played on ropes, picked fleas off each other and generally engaged in cute monkey behaviour.

Best to leave it to the pictures I think.


Red gates

On the drive to the monkey park Craig gave us some history of the town and stopped to say hello to some local friends on the streets only just as wide as the van. There was the sake factory and the sake man. The beer brewery and the brewing man, as well an owner of a ryokan down the road. He pointed out a ryokan where Princess Masako stopped for coffee (under tight security) on her way to going skiing, and another house which was once home to samurais. It all added up to really feeling like we were in town and a country with many centuries of tradition and one where being born with a particular family name partially controls your future.

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