The last place I stayed in before re-entering civilisation was a place in the mountains near Nagano called “Jigokudani”, or “Hell’s Valley”. From the little geyser and sulphurous hot springs it quickly became obvious how the place got its name, but the place wasn’t quite as inhospitable as it sounded.
Getting there was a bit of an adventure in itself. First was a taxi from my ryoukan (a Japanese-style inn with futons on a tatami mat) to the station. And then 3 trains to the spa town of Yudanaka. Then a bus to the bottom of the hill where my next ryoukan was meant to be. After a “30 to 40 minute walk”, the instructions said. That was where the fun started. The directions I had from the website was a little bit, um, skewed. It was starting to drizzle as I approached a young service station attendant in my broken Japanese.
“Er, excuse me. I go…” It took me awhile to dig out the printouts of my reservation. “Here. Where is it?”
He looked at the printouts, ink slightly runny, and ducked inside and fetched a map (woopee!), circling the service station and then my ryoukan – two thirds up the map via a road and a path.
“Oh. That [path]. Where is it?”
He looked as if he didn’t know and fetched his boss. The boss was a bit more sure. “Go back to…[???] And go up…”
“Mmm… 30 minutes maybe.”
He looked at me some more, and then looked outside. “It’s raining a bit. Do you have an umbrella?”
“I have rain jacket. Ok.”
“And the path is slippery.”
“I have hiking shoe. I’m ok.”
They didn’t seem convinced as I set off, now expecting to encounter a wilderness like Tasmania, with waist-high bogs and extreme rock-hopping. The first part wasn’t perilous, though the road was very steep. I had put on the said rainjacket because it was raining more heavily and my pack was getting heavier with every step. A lady in a soba eating house saw me trudging through the rain and called me over. She must have seen a lot of crazy foreigners hauling backpacks up the hill.
“Monkey park is that way. 30 minutes.” she said.
Still 30 minutes? Well I must be closer. I found the dreaded path soon after that, which wasn’t scary at all – wide and pretty flat and only slightly muddy. And I found the ryoukan without too much trouble too. It was a rickety, sprawling old wooden house with real mineral hot spring baths inside and outside with lovely views of the changing autumn foliage.
It also served dinners featuring beautifully crisp mountain vegetable tempura, a hot pot featuring wild boar meat, and wait for it, little fried crickets. Which for the record, I ate.
And of course there were snow monkeys. Plenty of them.
One morning I awoke to find them on the roof ledge outside my window doing a bit of nitpicking. But they really all congregated next door, where the monkey park had specially designated baths for them.
The area gets heaps of snow in the winter and when it gets that cold, a hot bath is the only place to be for both monkeys and humans. It wasn’t very cold when I visited so there was only one monkey in the bath, although it wasn’t so happy to be disturbed, and I can understand why!