Snow Monkeys

Trip Start Sep 10, 2008
Trip End Sep 03, 2009

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Where I stayed

Flag of Japan  , Chubu,
Monday, December 22, 2008

Japan, it turns out, is hard work. The 'Japanese tourist' starts at home it would appear. The place is really not set up for backpackers or other foreign travellers, nor does it receive many, the main tourism industry in Japan is from the Japanese themselves. While that's great in many ways, giving a truly authentic experience, it makes things a bit tricky when trying to do stuff such as book a hostel that doesn't cost the same as a 4* hotel and is within a 100 mile radius of where you actually want to be. And thats how I ended up in a hostel in the middle of nowhere, the only guest in the entire building. The website said it was in Nagano. It was not in Nagano. It was not even close to Nagano. It was in fact, in Matsumoto, but hey, at least the lady came to pick me up at the train station and dropped me off again (although I had to wait in the snow for over half an hour!).

Unfortunately, as the only person in the hostel, I had to work the gas heaters by myself. For those of you who don't know, I have a little phobia of things operated by gas, no idea why. I pressed a button, and the heater in my room sprayed something out of it that smelt really bad. I was pretty sure that it wasn't meant to do that. I came back into the room, and the heater smelt like it was still leaking something. In the end, I decided it was best to just pile on the duvets and move the heater into the corridor, so I did. It was cold. I woke up several times to check I was alive and hadn't died from carbon monoxide poisoning. One of many fun nights!...

There lies the basis of my love/hate relationship with Japan. On the one hand you can go and visit snow monkeys, stand face to face with them as they bathe in an onsen (hot outdoor spa bath) made especially for them, literally only cenitmetres away, which is only made possible by the fact that all the visitors obey the rules (only in Japan!). On the other hand they leave your gloves, camera, scalf, jeans, anything else that came into contact with the surrounding rocks with a slight tinge of eau du monkey toilet. This then caused me to sit on the train for the next hour eyeing up my lunch, but not wanting to touch it, or anything else for that matter until I got somewhere I could wash my hands. As people sat within the vicinity of me, I decided that I probably didn't smell that bad after all.

It was quite an episode simply getting to see the monkeys, although it has to be one of the best experiences I've had so far, and was definitely worth the hastle. Arriving at Nagano station, I headed to tourist information who gave me a bus timetable and pointed me in the direction of the baggage lockers and bus stops. Very proud that I managed to fit my huge bag into the 400 yen locker, rather than the 600 yen one, with space to spare for my other collections of bags, mainly containing half-eaten bits of food I headed to the bus stop. Pointing to the snow monkey leaflet I had been given I pointed at the bus. "Is this the right bus for the snow monkeys?" "hai, hai, hai" (yes), and with that and a concoction of Japanese sentences that I couldn`t understand at all, the driver directed me onto the bus. Apparently the bag success had left me overconfident.

I started to get concerned just after we had set off. The reason being, the bus was full of foreign tourists, all talking about fancy ski lodges. This is something I had not encountered before. Everywhere else I'd been had been full of Japanese tourists, but no foreigners. I asked them where they were going. It wasn`t the same place as me. I spoke to the driver. Somehow managing to get the message across that I was on the wrong bus, I asked for him to let me off here, where I could walk back to the train station. He said something to me in Japanese again, after looking at the leaflet, before contacting someone on the radio. I was left stood in the middle of the aisle, trying to get my various layers of coats, hat and gloves on whilst rather ungracefully, trying not to fall over, as the driver speeded further away from the train station. Still with no idea what was going on, and getting slightly concerned as we were getting out of walking distance the driver kept saying OK. Thankfully, we shortly pulled over behind another bus, which was in fact the one I should have got, and the driver made sure I got on the right one, which was very nice of him, and yet another example of Japanese hospitality!

Arriving at the correct destination this time, I got off with three girls from Thailand, all of us equally as lost as each other. We managed to find a petrol station, who was obviously so used to being asked where the snow monkeys were, even had a little map printed off that he could give to lost tourists. The beautiful uphill walk through the forest dusted with snow was worth it, to see the monkeys acting completely naturally, it was if there were no humans there. Truly amazing!
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