Ever seen a bunch of monkeys chilling in a hot spring like it’s a jacuzzi? Neither had I, and so when I was in Japan I purposely built a detour into my itinerary to visit Yudanaka – home of the bathing snow monkeys.
Yudanaka is a sleepy town in the Japanese Alps that mainly serves a ski resort for the Japanese in winter and is known for its onsen (natural hot springs), but other than a sake brewery that offers tasting sessions there is not much to explore there. I had taken a shinkansen train to Nagano, where I had to wait for some hours before I could change to a local line which terminates at Yudanaka-Onsen. It was January, and as my journey progressed more and more snow-capped mountains came into view. I was two weeks into my trip around Japan, and getting off the train in Yudanaka almost felt like a relief after Tokyo’s endless choice of shops, bars and restaurants, its streets lined with concrete, its air filled with public services announcements and its ceaseless streams of people passing by anonymously in the neon-lit nights. Yudanaka’s small train station was deserted in the mid-afternoon, and from the platform I could see the mountains creeping up on the town’s streets. With my backpack I walked the slushy streets to the ryokan I had booked for my stay among the bathing monkeys.
Entering my room, I closed the paper screens behind me and rolled out the futon bedding. This ryokan offered a traditional Japanese sleeping experience, and to stay in style I decided to pour myself a hot green tea. Although I knew very well that it missed all the intricate symbolism of a professional Japanese tea ceremony I enjoyed sitting on the tatami mats with a steaming cup of tea in my hands, warming me up before I was to step outside into Yudanaka’s wintry streets again.
The ryokan was as deserted as the town itself, but on my way down to the lobby I encountered an Australian man who was struggling to walk up the stairs on the traditional wooden slippers that all guests are asked to wear, as you are to take out your shoes at the door. He and his eleven-year-old daughter appeared to be the only other guests today. At reception, I asked the ryokan owner for directions to the snow monkeys. “Do you think I can still make it before dark?” The owner smiled one of those gentle Japanese smiles, and said “It is quite far to walk from here at this hour. But I can give you a ride to the base of the mountain. You’ll have to walk from there, it is not possible to go all the way up there by car.” The drive up the mountain was a silent one. We quickly left the town behind and pine trees began to line both sides of the road. “Just give me a call when you finish and I will come to pick you up again.” The sound of the car door shutting was muffled by the snow that formed an isolating layer over the ground and the trees.
A road ran up through a snowy forest and along the way I passed another deserted ryokan with an outdoor onsen, but no one was enjoying its baths. I imagined that if there were any guests at all, they’d probably be curled up somewhere inside to hide from the icy temperatures out here. Further up, I passed geysers and steamy natural hot springs known as rotemburo that lay in the valley of the Yokoyu river, and the grey skies that promised more snowfall slowly turned a darker hue in anticipation of the January early nightfall.
After thirty minutes of uphill walking, I had arrived and my eyes caught a sight that was simultaneously comical and serene. A couple dozen of Japanese macaques, young and old, sat soaking in a natural spring – some had their eyes closed, as though lost in a reverie; others glanced around, with only the upper part of their faces above water, trying to submerge as much of their bodies as possible in the merciful warm bath; little babies were pushing and pulling each other, disturbing the peace that some of the older monkeys were trying to find here. These animals come down from the mountains to warm their souls during the harsh Alpine winters – they are witty enough to understand that these hot springs provide a natural escape from the snow and ice that covers these grounds for one-third of the year. The scene pulled me in and I stood there watching for a good while. These monkeys with their grandpa-like faces looked like they were enjoying a bliss that seemed so human and relatable. Steam rose from the hot water and tiny snowflakes started to fall from the heavy sky. I laughed as I realized that I found myself envying a couple of monkeys.
Daylight ran short and I walked back down the mountain, snow now falling steadily among the pines. Back in Yudanaka it had gotten dark, and I followed the recommendation of the ryokan owner who had driven me back to enter a narrow restaurant by shoving aside the traditional noren curtains covering the entrance, where I sat for a while, slurping thick udon noodles in a spicy hot broth. I was the only customer. The lights were warm and dimmed and no sounds came in from the outside. I thought of the monkeys and wondered if they would still be sitting in their warm bath up on the mountain, and I pictured them in the pitch black dark of night.
A quick walk down the quiet sloping street brought me back to the ryokan, where I undressed in my room and changed into the yukata, a traditional Japanese bathing garment that came with the room. I wriggled my feet into the wooden sandals, and diligently went down the creaking stairs. I entered the sparsely lit onsen in the basement, and washed while sitting on a tiny stool, using hot water from a bucket. I then walked over the black stone floor to the hot spring that was steaming with the natural water that came up directly from below the earth’s surface. I dipped a toe and quickly pulled back my foot, as the water was scalding hot. I entered a toe again, and then slowly a foot, and little by little I was able to submerge myself into the water. I floated for a while, and then I sat, only my neck and face exposed while outside the snow fell on the streets of Yudanaka and on the mountains of the monkeys. The skin on my fingertips started to wrinkle. I closed my eyes and I thought of the monkeys and smiled.
Create your own adventure!
- How to arrive
From Tokyo, take a shinkansen (high speed bullet train) to Nagano, then take the Nagaden train to Yudanaka. From Yudanaka station you can take a bus or taxi to Kanbayashi Onsen, from where you will have to walk the final 30 minutes up the mountain.
- Where to stay
I can wholeheartedly recommend Shimaya Ryokan. Perhaps the building and its interior are a bit dated, but you will have a true Japanese experience in this traditional ryokan. It is a very comfortable place with a wonderful onsen that you can use privately when there are few other guests. The owner is incredibly friendly and provides free rides to the base of the mountain where you will find the monkeys. They are also happy to pick you up at Yudanaka station, or it’s an 8-minute walk. You can also order traditional Japanese meals here if you prefer not to leave the warmth of the ryokan in search of food in the middle of winter.
- When to go
You can visit Yudanaka at any time of the year and you can have monkey sightings also in summer, but winter is really the best season because the snowy landscape really completes the picture. You can access the area where the monkey’s hot spring is between 09:00h and 16:00h in the winter months and between 08:30h and 17:00h from April to October. More information including a live webcam of the hot spring can be found on the Jigokudani Yaen-Koen website.
- Extra tip!
On your way to or from Yudanaka, it is nice to make a brief stop in the small town of Obuse. There is not much to see there, but it is a pleasant small village that is worth a stroll.