A monkey park and loads of snow

It’s been a while since we’ve had to get up before sunrise, but that’s exactly what we did in order to avoid crowds at Jigokudani Monkey Park. We were up and out of the hostel before 6am, racing to the station to avoid missing our first train.

It was just after 8am when we arrived into Nagano Station, but we missed the first bus out to the park by minutes. The combined transport and park tickets were difficult to find when the tourist office was closed until later on in the morning, but once we had them we headed over to the bus station for the express bus. While waiting in the queue we were told to move out of the way by an overly enthusiastic Japanese lady, who didn’t speak a word of English but continued to talk at length and wave her arms around frantically. Once moved a metre or so backwards we were told to wait, then passed the time watching the lady continue to move and talk a lot while trying to get luggage onto a different bus.

The bus to the park took around 40 minutes and passed snow-covered towns and buildings on the way. It was still early so the light was beautiful and with the clear skies it felt like driving through a postcard scene.

Wrapped in every layer we could sensibly wear together, we stepped off the bus into the cold and stood for a moment just enjoying the fantastic view of the snow and mountains. It’s been cold in Japan up until this point, but now we were especially glad for the extra layers we’d bought as this was the coldest we’d been so far. My outfits have consisted of random layers of clothes designed for the summer over a few pairs of tights or leggings, matched with long socks and walking shoes. I’ve definitely looked a bit like a crazy backpacker for the past few weeks.

The walk to the monkeys was expected to take around 30-40 minutes, but I hadn’t realised how much snow and ice there would be on the way up. Falling over is an inevitability or me in icy conditions, so I practically crawled my way through the forest and up the mountain range to get there. At roughly the halfway point I did fall on my backside, which for me was like a slow motion moment when you embrace the fall and just let it happen. After that my pace decreased by another 15%.

When we eventually reached the snow monkey park it was already almost 11am, which meant we definitely weren’t the first few people there. I think if you want to avoid the crowds, double check you’re not planning your trip on the weekend and stay nearby so you can get there first thing in the morning. We failed on both of these things and there was already 20-30 people gathered around the tiny hot spring trying to snap photos.

The park itself was pretty underwhelming, which was mostly due to the fact that I’d been fooled by the photos online before we arrived again. Had I not had to walk over so much ice to get there, or if we’d arrived maybe 40 minutes earlier it might have been better. Unfortunately I didn’t have grips for the ice on my shoes and there were loads of people trying to push past me to get a photo, so I spent most of the time in a panic thinking I was going to slip and smash my camera.

Once I’d watched the monkeys up close for long enough, I found a safe spot where I wasn’t going to break anything and let Mark wander to take photos. There were a couple of comedy moments when a child almost wandered into the hot spring, or a couple of monkeys started to mate in front of us, but it was mostly just monkey having a hot drink or digging in snow.

After maybe an hour we decided to head back and once again I adopted an old lady pace as I shuffled my way back to the bus stop. Instead of another express bus, we decided to get a local bus and then a train to the main station, which turned out to be a sightseeing train with a journey time much longer than we expected. Mark enjoyed the view and I fell asleep while trying to read a book.

It was an interesting day trip with some gorgeous views and some mishaps, but I think if I was to do it again I’d stay overnight in the area instead. There were seemingly loads of things to do in the area or along the route back to the main train station, but the cold and the ice had worn us out and we decided to save it for a future trip.

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