One of the best things to do in Japan is to experience the onsens (natural hot springs). But to see monkeys bathing in the onsens? That just has to be experienced. When you look at monkeys they appear very close in relationship to humans, but the famous photos of the monkeys bathing in the onsens really give you the impression that they are enjoying the sensation of hot, steamy onsen water on a cold day just like you do.
Macaque monkeys in the alps are nick-named “snow monkeys” and when you get on the train from Nagano into the town of Yudanaka the train is nick-named the “snow monkey express” and it’s a beautiful ride.
However, we were met in Nagano with a sign at the train that said the monkey park was closed. Apparently the monkeys who get fed food at the monkey park were able to find plenty of fresh fruit on the trees elsewhere this time of year, (in the fall,) and didn’t need to hang out at the monkey park to score a meal.
There was tension everywhere we went in Yudanaka because the tourists coming to see the monkeys bathe in the onsen were going to be very disappointed, and yes we were, very sad that we might miss them. We were told to go sightsee at a neighboring town instead because besides monkeys and onsens, there’s not much to do in the area. But we decided to hang out locally, take our chances and see if the monkeys would show up later.
Glad we did, because just as we turned the corner after breakfast we found a whole family of monkeys hanging out in the trees right behind our hotel! Or should I say they were terrorizing the local townspeople? A woman came out of her house with a giant stick and started banging it on the ground to gently scare the monkeys off her rooftop. We followed them up into the trees to get a closer look and saw little, baby monkeys doing back flips from one tree to another. What a sight!
At breakfast at the Shimaya hotel, a couple said they saw the monkeys coming out of the supermarket, so I guess the monkeys really DO know where to get their food! Who needs the monkey park? Another couple said they saw them hanging out in the local graveyard next to a temple. These monkeys really get around…
Besides seeing the monkeys you can always go into the onsens yourself. This was the first, real onsen town we had been to and it was fascinating to walk down the street and see steaming water coming from every vent in buildings and even from below the street itself. The town has a large river running through it. The area is surrounded by mountains and farm land growing huge apples, grapes and persimmons. It’s a beautiful train ride.
The neighboring town of Shibu Onsen is only a 10 minute walk from Yudanaka and where most people stay to see the snow monkeys. It’s full of quaint onsen hotels and people walk from onsen to onsen in their Yukata (cotton kimono) and wooden sandals that make a clanking sound on the cobblestone street.
There are small temples that dot the town and some have hot, steaming onsen water foot bathes you can use on the street for free. There’s a beautiful one right outside the train station too. We tried a few and they were incredibly hot, I could only keep my feet in for a few seconds.
In Yudanaka we tried the onsen bathes at the historic hotel Yorozuya which were amazing. (Visit Yudanaka-Yorozuya.com) They have some really big, nice rotenburos (outdoor bathes) and the ones inside make you feel as though you are bathing in an ancient bath house, which maybe you are!
Later in the day we saw the monkeys run down from a cemetery after a bunch of school children were singing in a choir outside in the schoolyard. The children started squealing and laughing, they eventually were brought inside as we went up to the graveyard next to the school to get a closer look. We noticed the school kids wear little bells on their backpacks which ring as they run down the street. Perhaps to scare away the monkeys?
The monkeys later went over to Yorozuya onsen to hang out in their trees and perhaps entertain the hotel guests. I was just in those bathes the day before, but I think I might have freaked out a little if I was naked, in a bath with wild monkeys hanging over it! We once again had a chance to watch the monkeys play up close.
Overall, we were only in Yudanaka for 2 nights, we didn’t get to see monkeys in the onsen, but we definitely got to the see the monkeys up close and running wild all over the town. More fun perhaps? Maybe.