Thursday, December 3, 2015

Travel: Snow Monkeys

    This trip was at the top of our list and while we missed it our first year here, we didn't want to put it off to the end, so it became top priority for 2015 travels.  It was a looooooong day.  We woke up at 3:45 a.m.  to make breakfast (thanks to food allergies we have to pack most of our food to take along with us) and get everyone ready to catch the bus at 4:45 a.m.
    Our first stop was to Matsumoto Castle.  Shoes of course are not allowed inside the castle but socks are and complimentary slippers are available.  It was an even split on those of us who took slippers and those who thought that sharing slippers with thousands of strangers was kind of gross.  It was so early in the morning that although we kept our socks on our feet were frozen stiff as we walked up each narrow stairway to the top.  At one point we started sharing slippers just for those who hadn't taken them to have a few minutes of...I won't say warmth, but of slightly less cold.
    The castle is amazing and on this cold clear morning with the snowy mountains framed behind it we could imagine ourselves back in that long past feudal age.

After lunch it was time to put on our snow suits and hiking boots for the long uphill walk to the natural hot springs where the snow monkeys lounge. Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is in the Nagano prefecture, a day trip from Tokyo.  Jigokudani roughly translates to "Hell Valley," due to the numerous hot springs in the area, and receives thousands, possibly tens of thousands of visitors each year.
With so many visitors the snow on the trail was tightly packed into a solid, icy sheet.  It was a slow, slippery climb to the top.  We frequently had to pause to let others come down.  Eventually we left the path to hike in the ditch where the snow was still crunchy.  We knew we had reached our destination when a small monkey darted across our path.  There are no fences separating viewers from the animals they've come to see, only a few park employees scattered about to enforce the rules.  And of course, if someone gets out of line, the monkeys aren't shy about defending themselves.  We saw one little girl  chase a baby monkey only to find herself being chased by an angry mother monkey. 
For the most part, the monkeys just soak in the warm water and occasionally groom each other, so after an hour or so it was time to head back down the trail.  It was a very long but very wonderful day and worth braving the cold and the slippery slope which we found out was even more treacherous on the way down.  Our day finally ended at about 10:00p.m. with memories made and a nice warm bed feeling better than ever.

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