Friday, February 6, 2015

Nagano Trip Day One: Snow Monkeys!

Doing something a little different this time.  My husband Jeff took a little adventure on his own last week, so I asked him to share his story as a guest blogger.  Hope you enjoy his story!

 Jeff's story:

For Christmas, my awesome wife arranged a trip for me to go snowboarding in Nagano prefecture.  Japan has some amazing snow and it was one of the things on my "Things to do in Japan" list.  Since Sky is pregnant, snowboarding for her is not recommended, so she sent me off last week on a solo adventure to the north.

As you may remember, Nagano hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998, so it seemed like a great place to get an authentic Japanese snow experience.  My destination was the resort town of Nozawaonsen, a picturesque traditional town nestled up to the bottom of a ski resort about an hour north of the city of Nagano by bus and train.  This area, like many in Japan, is filled with geothermal activity which leads to the presence of many "onsen" which is the Japanese term for hot springs.

The Nagano area has another claim to fame besides Olympics hosting and great snow, and that's the "snow monkeys" of the Jigokudani Monkey Park.  This park was close enough to my final destination in Nozawaonsen to be a possibility to squeeze into my weekend itinerary.

So, I set out early Friday morning on the first leg of my trip, from a snowy train station in our town.

The first two legs of my trip were on the Shinkansen, in Okayama I changed from the "local" bullet train (that stops at all of the stops) to the express that only stops at a few stations on its way to Tokyo.  I didn't go all the way to Tokyo, but changed to a slow regional express train in Nagoya.  Since there was some minor delays on the Shinkansen (doesn't happen often but did that day), I missed my planned train and was delayed an hour at Nagoya station.  The downside to that was it cut into my afternoon Monkey Park time, the upside is while waiting for the next train I was chatting with another American (identified by Seattle Seahawks jersey and baseball hat) who was a musician (identified by the fact he was carting around a guitar and a bass) touring in Eastern Japan.  His name was Nathan Aweau (I Googled the name on his bass case) and it turns out he is an amazing bass virtuoso.  Check out this video for an incredible bass solo, it's a little slow until after 1:20.

The train to Nagano was slower, but quite beautiful as we wound our way up into the higher elevations along a rushing river and through wooded pine and bamboo forests.  The snow started in earnest after about an hour on the train, making me very excited for my snowboarding the next day.

I arrived at Nagano station and got the bus and train schedules to get to the Monkey Park as well as to my hotel in Nozawaonsen.  The guy at the tourist office was very helpful, although he was skeptical that I'd be able to see the monkeys and still make it to my final destination.

Side note for anyone visiting Japan: although they have awesome public transit, be mindful of when the last trains, buses, and ferries stop running for the night, especially in the smaller towns and rural areas.  You might find yourself taking a very expensive taxi ride, or being stuck on an island if you're not careful.  This hasn't happened to us, fortunately, but we've had to make on the fly adjustments to our plans a few times.

From Nagano station, it was another 50 minutes on a bus to the stop nearest the monkeys.  I got off the bus at 3:15.  Jigokudani Monkey Park has an official closing time of 4PM.  It was a 3km walk, uphill, in the snow, to get to where the monkeys were.  The faster I got to the monkeys, the more time I'd have to watch them and take pictures.  So, I cinched down both of my backpacks (yes, I was carrying all of my snowboard gear and clothing in a large backpack) and I ran to the monkeys!  Fortunately, I've been running a few times a week so I was somewhat prepared, but it still was pretty exhausting.  And everyone was looking at me like I was crazy (which is pretty normal over here even when you aren't running uphill in the snow).

Jigokudani Monkey Park is not fenced in or anything.  Its just a little valley, with a river running through it, a bunch of snow, and a small onsen where the monkeys like to hang out.  There are approximately 200 monkeys that call this area "home."  I made it in time to get in, see the monkeys and take a bunch of pictures.  Here are some of my favorites:

One of my favorite parts of visiting the monkeys was actually walking out of the park.  Most of the visitors has left and there were just a few of us stragglers walking along the trail back to civilization.  And the monkeys were all walking with us; bounding back and forth along the trail, climbing and jumping through trees, calling out to each other, and generally being adorable.  They really are amazing animals!

Another bus back to Nagano Station, a quick stop for sushi and sake, another train and a taxi and I arrived safely and exhausted at my inn in Nozawaonsen.

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