Our travels to Nagano to see the snow monkeys
The final destination of our road trip before heading back into Tokyo was Nagano.
Nagano is mostly famous for their snow monkeys and after reading so many stories about being able to bathe with them, I was determined to share the same experience.
We booked our stay at the Jigokudani Onsen Korakukan ryokan which was actually the original location where the snow monkeys were first thought to have their first onsen bath. The ryokan is also famed for being the origin of the Shinfuseki-style Go – a Japanese board game which I can only think to compare it to Chess or Draughts, but a billion times more complex and strategic. The ryokan is the closest to the monkey park so I felt our odds of bathing with them would be relatively high.
We left our luggage in lockers at the main station and packed enough clothes to last the stay in a backpack as the road towards the ryokan and monkey park was uphill and not ideal for wheeling a suitcase on. After about a 30-45minute walk, we reached the ryokan. It was an old but traditional style building and the owners were an adorable husband and wife. They said they were the seventh generation to run the ryokan! We settled in and headed straight out for the monkey park.
The Japanese macaques were cute and running freely. We must’ve spent at least two hours in the park! Long enough for May’s camera to run out of battery. We left just before closing time and headed back to the ryokan where we enjoyed a private onsen to warm up. We ended the night with a lovely meal followed by a quick lesson in Go by the ryokan hosts, accompanied by some homemade plum wine and stories of how they live their simple life on the grounds and the history of their ancestors and Go.
The next morning
We woke up to a snow blizzard! The weather was freezing outside and the snow was heavy. The monkeys sounded quite aggressive as we watched them running up and down the ryokan roofs and windows, screeching away at each other. May and I crept cautiously outside where there must’ve been around 15 monkeys watching us intently. Despite the heavy snowfall and seeing as there were some monkeys relaxing in the outdoor onsen, I decided to brave the blizzard and go in for the shoot I’d been longing to have. I had to slowly lower myself into the pool as the monkeys looked cautiously at me. We were warned not to look into their eyes as they take that as a sign that we want to fight them so I had to keep my head down whilst trying to make sure I didn’t bump into any of them. May was terrified and I could hear her constantly telling me to be careful. After some quick bursts of the shutter, we were back in the warmth of the ryokan where I warmed myself up in the adjacent indoor pool. We got the shot, woo hoo!
After breakfast, we packed and headed out. We spent a while outside in the blizzard taking photos as some monkeys were sheltering outside the ryokan and monkey park entrance.
We were also on a tight schedule – we needed to catch a particular bus or our tickets would’ve been voided and we’d miss our connecting Shinkansen back into Tokyo. After I got my shots, we had to rush down the hill to make up the time. We literally got to the bus stop just as the bus was closing its doors so we had to make a mad dash for it. Luckily the driver spotted us and waited and we jumped on just in time!
Nagano was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. Being able to be so close to the monkeys and share the same onsen with them, in a snow blizzard: that’s got to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For our travels, I like to carry light photographic equipment. This photo story was shot on
Canon EOS M3 (22mm & 50mm).
Words by: May