Snow Monkeys!

From two years ago when I was part of the support team for the World Scout Jamboree in Japan, I have wanted to visit the Japanese macau that live in the mountains surrounding the onsen villages of Shibu and Yudanaka. This troupe of “snow monkeys” are know for bathing in the hotspring waters during the cold winter months.

They originally overran the human onsen (public hotspring baths) of a nearby inn, but due to the unsanitary nature of this, a bath was built for them further up the valley in the national park. Since they rarely enter the hotspring in the summer there was little point in me visiting them last time I was in Japan. Hence, the moment I decided that I was going to be visiting Japan in the winter, snow monkeys appeared at the top of my to do list. Even in December, with snow on the ground it is a little too warm for the monkeys to enter the steaming pool in the large numbers one might see further into winter.

Nonetheless I was determined to go and I was most definitely not disappointed. On the advice of Yoshi, one of the superb hostel owners, I caught the 08:20 bus to the snow monkey onsen. This way I hoped to avoid the worst of the crowds but not have to wait ages for the entrance to the snow monkey onsen to open. This worked well for me and I didn’t see a soul for most of the half hour walk through the national park to the entrance.

The walk was extremely pleasant and aside from being icy, not at all difficult. The snow laden trees were picturesque and the sound of the river rushing below in the valley provided a natural melody. Occasional gusts of wind carried the scent of sulphur and the cries of monkeys.

Initaially at the monkey onsen, I felt somewhat out of place as the only person using my phone camera; everyone else has at least one large, lens heavy camera. This was eventually remedied as more people began to arrive, but for those first ten minutes or so it was just me and those few camera wielding enthusiasts.

As I had feared would be the case, only a few monkeys entered the pool itself while I was there, but watching them sit around the edge and interact with one another was still a wonderful experience. They were undeniably cute and I was impressed by how little they were disturbed by the number of tourists, though I suppose in reality this was unsurprising.

With the viewing area getting crowded I walked back to the beginning of the forest trail. This time my walk was somewhat louder with a constant stream of people walking in the opposite direction. Reaching the end of the trail, I decided to walk back to my hostel through Shibu and Yudanaka on the advice of Seongmi, the other hostel owner and Yoshi’s wife. This turned out to be a really good idea as the views of the distant snow capped mountains were stunning and my walk took threes times longer than it should have because I kept stopping to admire them.

I also had a bit of fun resting my feet in a public foot onsen and after repacking my bag at the hostel, I walked back to Shibu. This time I walked through the onsen area and collected the stamps of all the public onsen in my notebook and tried some delicious soft boiled eggs that had been cooked in the hotspring water. It was lovely to walk through the winding streets and see the drains streaming where hot water gurgled below.

My final stop before dinner was one of the many onsen. I handed over the voucher I had purchased at the hostel and spent the next hour relaxing in mineral rich water and contemplating my day. The outdoor pool was beautifully designed and I can’t think of a better way to unwind after a day’s walking.

Back at the hostel, I met up with the two skiers I’d had dinner with the night before and we headed out for dumplings, grilled skewers and soba noodles. This was yet another delicious meal and a pleasant conclusion to the day.

Today I’m travelling down to Kyoto and I will be sad to leave Yudanaka and the Hostel Aibiya behind. The hostel is built in the traditional Japanese style and has a small store showcasing local artists. Both Seogmi and Yoshi were fantastic hosts, full of advice and local knowledge. The breakfast was amazing, especially the granola, and I truly look forward to a day when I might return, be it for hiking in the summer, skiing in the winter or maybe just to try more of the mouthwartering food offered by the nearby restaurants.

Not Quite Smooth Travelling

I spent my last full day in Seoul purchasing some discount hiking poles and looking around the fabric section of the Gwangjang Market. Or in other words, getting lost in the identical aisles of the Gwangjang Market. I could have passed the same teetering pile of fabric half a dozen times and not known it. This is not to say that all the fabrics were the same, indeed there was a vast variety of colour and composition, it is merely that fabric shops of any reasonable size have an innate ability to become labyrinths to the unsuspecting customer. Thus, it is hardly surprising that an entire market of fabric stores had me without orientation within seconds. Eventually I escaped the maze, sanity and wallet intact (there was a long moment where I debated getting a hambok after the fun I had wearing one). I spent the rest of the day relaxing at the hostel and checking a few last minute details for my next stage of travelling. Because my flight to Japan was an early one, I’d elected to change to a hostel closer to the airport for ease of mind. This is where everything started to go wrong. Well not everything, just one particular thing that impacted on everything else. One very annoying little thing.

Remember how on my first day in Seoul I was complaining about the difficulties of getting money at an ATM? Well it happened again as I tried to pay for my hostel and again and again at the nearby ATMs. I was forced to cancel my hostel, though at such short notice they charged via the internet anyway. Ironic that I was forced to pay for something I could not have when the reason I was unable to have it was that I could not pay.

Having seen the train times, I knew there was no way I would have been able to stay at my previous hostel, where I technically still had a reservation, and make it to the airport on time. Hence I found myself sprawled and trying desperately to sleep on an airport bench while waiting for 04:30 and check in to roll around. It eventually did, and after a pleasant chat with my mother via the beauty of free, unlimited airport WiFi (take note all English airports), I checked in without a hitch.

The queue for both entrances to security was painfully long, so long in fact that the two ends collided out by the check in desks. I was reminded of the days when all the new security measures had only just been introduced and no one knew what was going on. Nowadays it is so streamlined in some airports as to be almost painless. My flight left on time and, other than a little turbulence, I naively thought I had left my troubles behind. More fool me, for in my pocket still lurked the card of doom, biding its time until I needed to withdraw my yen.

Safely through immigration and customs, I head straight for the ATM line up and start working my way down the line. To my utter devastation, not a single one would give me any money. There I was, stuck half way around the world, without a usable penny, or rather yen, to my name. I didn’t have a working sim card and with no money, I could not use a payphone. After a small meltdown and several failed attempts to phone home via Messenger, I found myself once more in front of the dreaded ATMs. This time my goal was only to get enough money for the pay phone. At the third machine along I started low and upon a miraculous success, worked my way up until the I once again got an error message.

This method was by no means perfect and I dread to think of the various bank charges I have incurred but I now had enough money for the train and my hostel, which was a marked improvement. Armed with my newly procured funds I took the JR line to Nagano where I said goodbye to English announcements and continued on to Yudanaka. I carefully monitored snow levels throughout my journey, after all my sole reason for coming to Yudanaka is to see the snow monkeys. Things did not look promising as the train set off from Tokyo. It was not until well after Nagano that dustings of snow began to appear and only in the final stretch, when we ventured in to the shadow of mountains, that any major snowfall occured. End of the line and I walked to my hostel, miraculously not getting lost. I enjoyed an amazing plate of sushi and some tempura with a couple of other guests before retiring for the evening.

An amusing aside observation is how airports and train stations gradually seem to be giving up on forbidding luggage on escalators. In Hong Kong, signs asked that people with big bags use the lifts but when I reached Seoul it was only if one had multiple bags that the lift was required (though the number of stairs in some stations made the lift a tempting option anyway); at Incheon Airport signs showed how to take two suitcase on the escalator; finally, when I reached Narita Airport in Japan, the escalator to the train station was labelled as being suitable for taking trolleys. On this last however, one must note the look of fear on the faces of those standing in front of the trolley.