Going to See the Snow Monkeys


Last week in one of the coldest months Japan has seen in a long time, I ventured for the first time to visit the famous snow monkeys of northern Japan. These are the same snow monkeys made famous by national geographic, which enjoy much of their time relaxing in the onsen of the area (hot springs).

Because I am not Art Wolfe, who apparently has a photo group tour later this month to the same spot for $12,000 per person, I took the cheapest way possible, which meant a 5 hours midnight till morning bus ride from Tokyo so that I could arrive at the opening of the gate. This was the plan anyways.

The first sign that things may not go as planned came when waiting at Shinjuku bus terminal, and hearing “Most buses have been cancelled due to heavy snow and ice”. Never heard that before in nearly 12 years of Japan. 2, or 3, sure.. but most? Essentially this meant all passage north was, well impassible. I was not just going north, but going far north to the foot of one of the highest mountain ranges. However, as all the passengers waiting for various buses threw in the towel and headed home, I noticed the only two bus attendants left standing were standing where my bus was planned to arrive. Sure enough, minutes after the ominous announcement, the bus to Nagano Japan arrived. I asked no question. Threw my snowboard in the baggage compartment, and was relieved when the driver said it was no problem bringing both of my camera bags on board. One of which a co-worker once nicknamed the body snatcher, since it is larger enough to fit a small person inside.. or perhaps a monkey.

So, off I went. Skipping the relatively mundane details of the ride, the bus despite pulling off the road for nearly 2 hours at one point (I know believe this was a mandatory rest for the driver) arrived on time at Nagano station. Which was 1 hour before the first train to the adjacent onsen town of Snow Monkey Park. The gate was closed and as I pondered going back outside to make a quick vlog about my arrival, a lone station worker on the other side of the gate approached. I asked in my best Japanese, which is surprisingly bad for nearly 12 years in Japan. “What time does the gate open?”. “Ima” (now), he said. Still alone, and fairly certain looking at the long tunnel I came from, no one could get to my stuff before myself. I went up the stairs within the gated area to the cold snowy street, and did a quick vlog. So comfortable with the situation was I with a quaint table full of apples priced to sell, with no apparent way to pay, that I went again once more to purchase a beer and convenience store chicken. Japanese convenience stores have remarkably good fried chicken more often than not. Better than most big name fast food places by far.

Let me say at this point, I do not drink often, but I do drink. I can’t say what if much I have in common with Sheryl Crow, but I do like a good beer buzz early in the morning. However not yet. See two things were happening. Firstly I was carrying a snowboard bag filled with snowboard, boots, and most my clothes, and two heavy camera bags from Tokyo to Nagano, and it was taking a toll already, and two I was going to see Monkeys!! For the second reason alone, a beer seemed appropriate, but I also recognized the amount of stress my body would likely endure before arriving at the monkeys. I was going to stay in a hotel that night, but it was well past the Monkey park at the local skii resort (featured in the 1998 olympics). However I had a tip, that for a mere 500 yen, the gift shop at the monkey park would hold bags.

Fast forward.. the first train arrived covered in ice, ominous sign number two, but I whole heartily enjoy this type of thing. I used to work on a mountain, and loved every moment of it, except the dictatorship the resort called its management. So away I went on my ice train. Well aware there seemed to be no working heater. People seemed mostly prepared, but I was clearly more dressed for the occasion, as having hypothermia more than once in my life did not take away my love of all things winter, but I refuse to be that cold ever again. I was prepared.

Ominous sign number three. We were trucking along nicely, until we weren’t. The train stopped at a station only several stops from the final destination, and stayed stopped. 20 minutes or so passed, and it began to move again, slowly but surely. We arrived at a station where I was meant to transfer to the next line over, but it became very clear things were not as meant to be as I got to the top of the stairs. Many confused people, and a station employee trying his best to help them all. Standard procedure for me is to stand back and do my best to listen for Japanese or borrowed English I understand. I heard the name of my destination station several times and something like “not at this moment” several times. But the “not at this moment” was with heavy breathe that told me, it was questionable if the moment would come at all this day. In short after the masses departed once again, I stepped in and gently confirmed that my train was not moving anytime soon, and was offered a refund for the remaining track, with directions to the bus stop, and a promise that I could jump back on the train if things changed. Down the stairs, to the warm waiting room with two girls from china that were giggling at me from Nagano station. They were also going to the Monkey park, but I soon realised were waiting in the wrong place. I pointed the less luxurious little hut of a bus waiting area, and we began to move.. suddenly a station employee popped out of a stair well and told us the train was moving. Hurry hurry.. said the original man that returned our money.. the train was literally waiting just for the three of us. Sometimes it pays to wait for the masses to depart. Off we went. Arriving a mere two and a half hours late, but we made it. One more bus ride through a beautiful Onsen town. But no seat for me, and a snowboard I had to protect fellow passengers from. Did I fail to mention I accidentally jabbed one of the Chinese girls just under the eye with my thumb trying to save her from the falling board earlier?

Arrival. Snow Monkey Park, here we are. Except the 1.4km walk is deceiving. It is an additional half a kilometer from the bus stop to the gift shop which marks said 1.4km. Normally I wouldn’t care, but we are now on an icey road with traffic, and my body is officially being pulled apart by the weight of three heavy bags. The bus driver stopped me exiting the bus and said “snow monkey park”, basically saying, “you are destined for the mountain right?”Nope, I’m an idiot that tortures his body for the sake of one less night of paying for a budget hotel.

Gift shop arrival. Even writing this, there is a sudden relief now. This made it all better. They indeed happily accepted my snowboard and my body snatcher. Now what would normally be a brick of a bag with my gfx100s, 250mm lens, and a couple other lenses, felt like nice pillow with convenient straps. Not quite.. but nice..

Too be continued….

No matter where you are, you will always be here.

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