We are on a 6-week trip through Asia and this post is about our stay in the Nagano, Japan area and visiting the infamous snow monkeys.
I had heard about snow monkeys in Japan but wasn’t sure where they lived. There are other locations in Japan but we wanted Monkey Park near Nagano. Our host in Tokyo arranged for us to stay at an authentic ryokan very close to Monkey Park. Monkey Park is about 2 hours from Tokyo.
I thought we could stop on the train from Sapporo to Kyoto but if you take the Shinkansen (best) – all trains go through Tokyo. We took the Shinkansen with our JR (Japan Rail) Pass and Ellie was free because she is 5. So again it was a really long day (but worth it). The total train time was about 10 hours from Sapporo and we got a late start. I recommend you get an early start as it took us a total of 5 trains.
Our first train was to Oomiya, then we changed trains to Tokyo for a total of almost 7 plus hours. From Tokyo it took about 90 minutes to Nagano. We then changed trains to the local Nagano Detenecu Line (not covered by the JR pass) which took about 30 minutes. We got in so late that there was only one local train to the last station. I had asked three people if the train we were on went to Yudanaka but they didn’t tell me we had to transfer. So make sure that you are on the train that WILL stop in Yudanaka. We ended up taking a taxi instead of transferring again which would have meant almost another hour.
The area was blanketed in white – it was a little hard to see in the dark but the snow provided some beautiful scenery nonetheless. Our Ryokan hosts at “Minshuku Miyama” had to direct the cab driver on arrival – thank goodness I had their phone number. Normally the owner will pick you up for free at the local train station but we were too late. We barely made it to the ryokan before the 10pm check-in deadline.
The owners greeted us and asked if we needed anything. Ellie was “done” and crashed in minutes. I was famished and accepted a pot of hot water to prepare a noodle bowl and hot tea. The onsen (hot natural springs bath) was closed – quite a disappointment after such a long day. The toilet and shower were separate. The toilet was just outside our room and the shower in the onsen area was closed as well, another disappointment. There was a sign stating bathing hours but they didn’t seem to honor the sign. The next day I tried to shower at 10am and they said it wasn’t open til 12. Then they said onsen was only open 5-9pm, very frustrating. The onsen is the main reason why I chose to stay there.
We slept on the traditional tatami mat with very warm comforters (and our own personal heating unit). The room was a good size with extra mats and pillows (to which I helped myself). I find one futon mat a little hard mysel but in some places you might not have more than one. The place was rather quiet and we slept hard.
In the morning they prepared a breakfast for me (Ellie wasn’t feeling well). I really wasn’t up to fish and vegetables so I just ate the egg and ham. A bit later we decided to go see the monkeys – that was why we came all this way. (I figured out later that the scenery is another great reason to visit.). The gracious host drove us to the entrance to the park, where you must go on by foot. There’s Inza Cafe just at the entrance to the park and Ellie decided she was ready to eat. It’s a nice little place – they have everything from a quick hot chocolate to a full Japanese meal. I had vegetable tempura that was quite good, Ellie just wanted some comfort food.
We then walked 30 minutes up to the monkeys. It actually didn’t feel as cold as Tokyo – very strange. We were either getting used to it or the snow provided a kind of barrier – maybe both. It’s mostly a flat path and a rather easy walk with proper shoes for walking in snow. There is one place you have to walk up stairs but not bad. Do be careful on the path as it can be very slippery when snowy.
The entry fee into Jigokudani (Snow) Monkey Park is 800 yen. From the ticket booth it’s just a short distance to the area where the monkeys are found. You can walk down to the stream area where we found tons of monkeys in the snow and just a few in the actual hot spring. As we learned the macaque (snow) monkeys are matriarchal. Only the most senior females and their babies are allowed in the hot water. The others must sit around and watch or face being ostracized if they disobey the rules. It really is a very cool experience – it feels like being in the cage with the monkeys at the zoo.
Ellie and I decided to go in the onsen and we had the entire place to ourselves. We undressed in the locker area, scrubbed til we were clean as a whistle and then soaked in the outdoor bath. It was very pretty with a view of the snow and mountains. The water was nice and hot – maybe 41/42C.
They offered to prepare meals at an extra cost. For dinner I had soup with beef and noodles in a great broth, marinated daikon, pork, cabbage with mayo, peppers with meat, vegetables with a spicy sauce, smoked fish, plus rice and green tea. It was like Japanese tapas. There were six other guests for dinner but most were Japanese who didn’t speak English.
The next morning our hosts gave us a ride to the train station. I found out at checkout that they didn’t take credit cards and had to go to an ATM. Make sure you verify methods of payment before you go to a ryokan.
I am really glad that we got the opportunity to stay in a traditional Japanese Ryokan, it was an interesting experience. Most of all we were very happy to see the snow monkeys and we recommend that you do the same.