Mountains and monkeys

Trip Start Nov 24, 2010
Trip End Nov 23, 2011

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Flag of Japan  , Nagano,
Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Only with the help of shinkansens and Japan's superlative rail network would I be able to make it from Hiroshima in south-west Honshu to Hakabu, nestled at the foot of the Northern Alps. Two shinkansens followed by an express train and then two sedate local trains completed the journey. I left Hiroshima just after 8am and caught up on some sleep en route to Osaka where I switched trains for Nagoya and then boarded the express train for Matsumoto, where I found myself sandwiched in the midst of an elderly group on an outing. And boy could they eat... Polishing off bento boxes the size of which I had not seen before. At Matsumoto I swapped for the slow service which I thought would take me all the way to Kamishiro but alas, no. I was deposited at a station half way up the line and there was a 90-minute wait for my onward train. I was in the country now, a world away from the mainlines. Time to read some Stieg Larsson.

More than nine hours after leaving Hiroshima I reached Hakuba village, a smaller settlement outside the main Hakuba town which is one of Japan's most popular ski resorts in the winter and a hub for hiking in the summer. I called my hostel from the station to request the free pick-up service and five minutes later Toshi, who runs the hostel with his lovely wife, collected me in a people carrier and drove me the short distance through pine forest to K's House. What an amazing hostel - massive dinning and chill-out room, great kitchen, oh so comfortable dorms... So quiet and out of the way in cooler climes... And not many guests. Just the country retreat I was looking for after lots of hustling, bustling and sweating in Japanese cities.

I was immediately befriended by a pair of middle-aged Japanese men from Tokyo who invited me to share some white wine and nibbles with them. Before I came to Japan people had warned me that English-speakers were few and far between but I have met a lot of people who speak the language very passably and these guys were no different as we chatted about life and their jobs. Japanese people refer to the company they work for as "my company" so at first I think they own their own business but it soon transpires that they are referring to one of the larger corporations. Employment forms such a big part of people's identities, working all hours with very little vacation time, and it seems many people work for the same company for most of their working lives.

It is no surprise that news of my irresponsible decision to travel for a year at the expense of everything else normally causes shocked expressions on the faces of many of the Japanese I have met. It turned out that one of the men is the father of a famous actress in Japan. He wasn't keen to talk about it and I only knew because his companion brought it up. He was especially concerned that other Japanese in the hostel might overhear. Unfortunately I have forgotten her name but maybe it will come back to me... I think the wine went to my companions' heads faster than mine as they retired to bed early, leaving me to catch up on some writing.

I was up early the next morning to check on the weather. I wanted to go hiking and to climb Mount Karamatsu but I didn't want to do it in the rain. If I was going to do it I had been told I would need to catch the 7.53am train to Hakuba, just two stops away, as the next one was not until 10.10am. The weather looked pants so I resolved not to go... Only to be told, just when it was too late to get the train, that the forecast for the following day was rain all day, while rain was only expected in the afternoon on this day. It was now or never so I hightailed it down to the main road where I picked up the local bus which, after doing the rounds, dropped me off at the Happo gondola station. I paid a very pricey Y2600 for the return ticket for the cable car and two chair lifts that took me to the start of the trail, which was rammed with mainly middle-aged to ageing Japanese.

I knew the last lift down was at 4.30pm and it was 10.30am so I had plenty of time to make it up to the top and then to retrace my steps. It wasn't going to be a repeat of the Roberts Point experience at Franz Josef in New Zealand. The first section leading up to Happo pond was pretty easy with a wooden walkway heading up so I took the steeper and rockier right-hand path to avoid the procession making its way up to the left. The pond was pretty enough but because of the low cloud there was no chance of seeing reflected peaks as shown in the tourist promo photos. It seemed most people were just heading to the pond and then heading back as the path onwards was pretty empty.

Everyone left on the trail was now pretty serious about hiking, decked out in expensive and brightly coloured gear with bulging backpacks and walking poles. And there was me in a T-shirt, rolled up trekking trousers and my faux walking shoes which, by this point in my travels, were starting to crumble a bit with a few of the rubber studs missing from the soles. There was a very friendly atmosphere on the path with everyone I passed bidding me 'konnichiwa'. The further I went the tougher the going got as the path cut along a ridge through a patch of verdant forest before ascending steeply to an ice field where a kind chap took my photo, sweaty fringe and all. I pushed on uphill until I came out onto a flat section and a cairn where a group of Japanese had stopped for lunch. I chatted to a man whose name now escapes me, and who spoke perfect English, about Haruki Murakami books. He had attended a lecture by the great man a few years earlier and told me that he is not just famous in Japan, he is like a god. As we chatted the cloud really started to come in and the smell of rain was in the air. I needed to get on my way as I still needed to make the return journey, while I think most of the Japanese were heading for a mountain hut offering accommodation, where they would set up base for several days of hiking.

The path got narrower and narrower as the visibility rapidly diminished. Not the best conditions for crossing rickety bridges above very steep slopes. The first drops had started to fall when I rounded a corner and a large wooden building loomed out of the gloom. It was more than the mountain hut of my imagination, more a youth hostel at the top of a mountain. I turned right up the steep path to the summit where I grabbed a photo of mainly cloud before dashing for cover in the hut, just as the heavens opened. I took my shoes off in the entrance hall, as is always the custom, and inquired about the price of a cup of coffee as I needed a pick me up before heading back down. The girl told me it was Y500, pointing at a very small cup on the shelf behind her. Then she asked me if I would be drinking it outside. A glance at the rivers of water running down the window panes to her side should have been enough of an answer, and I assured her I would like to take my coffee indoors. That would cost Y200 more. Well, I was a captive consumer so I agreed to pay almost six pounds for a very meagre beverage, which I enjoyed in the large dining room, surrounded by hardened Japanese breaking out their wet weather gear. Fancy stuff compared to the leaky poncho I was packing in my day sack.

After about 20 minutes it looked like the downpour was abating so I ventured outside and was delighted to find the rain had passed. I wasn't going to hang around any longer as I wanted to get down the mountain before a repeat performance rolled in. The weather was really clearing up and going down was much easier than coming up. I know that sounds like an obvious statement to make but sometimes the going downhill can be harder than going uphill, especially when wet rocks are involved. I was pretty much bounding down with a big smile on my face as the mountains reveaed themselves from behind their opaque veils and my lungs were full of fresh air. The flowers looked beautiful and there was wildlife to be seen - a big green caterpillar and a giant cicada that made a noise like a circular saw on metal, increasing the pitch the closer I got. He won, I moved on with ears ringing.

I plumped to take the wooden steps for the final section, just as the rain returned. I made it to the chair lift station and brought out poncho for the ride back down the mountain. I was pretty tired so, once back on the flat at the foot of the mountain, I decided to head for the station. Half-an-hour later and I was still walking so I was glad that I had missed the train that morning and caught the bus that took me right to where I was going. I made it to Hakuba station with a couple of minutes to spare and hopped on the train back to Kamishiro station and returned home (this place really felt like home) to enjoy a relaxed evening making use of the TV and DVD player, watching first Trainspotting (which I hadnae seen fer radging ages, ken) and Oh Brother.

It was another early start on Friday as I was heading first to Nagano and then onto Jigokudani Yaenkoen Onsen where I hoped to find the famous snow monkeys - Japanese macaques that live in around hot springs and like to take a dip. It would cost me Y6000 (50 pounds) for the round trip by very infrequent buses - pretty damn expensive but there was no alternative route. It was an hour to Nagano and, after a 40 minute wait, another 50 minutes to the drop off point for Jigokudani Yaenkoen - which translates as Hell's Valley. I walked up a winding road past very expensive-looking onsen retreats before finding the forest path leading to the snow monkeys.

A couple of kilometres later and I heard my first primate, just as I approached a small cluster of wooden buildings. And there he was, a bright red-faced monkey sitting in a tree munching away on some leaves. He soon tired of his perch and dropped down to the ground and began advancing through the undergrowth right towards me. Clearly this troupe of wild monkeys is totally unfazed by humans and the monkey bounded straight past me and jumped onto the roof of a rusted out mini-van abandoned in the bushes on the other side of the path. As an admirer of simians I had clearly come to the right place to see the most northerly species of monkeys who, not surprisingly, sport a thick coat to see them through the third of the year when the region is covered in snow.

I saw a pair of macaques on the roof of the first building I passed, one preening the other's rug of fur while it looked down sternly on the human activity passing by. Monkeys never cease to make me smile and my smile turned into a grin once I made to it to the hot pools favoured by the simian residents. There they were, just as I had seen in one of those awesome David Attenborough documentaries, soaking themselves and taking it easy in the warm water. A gaggle of baby monkeys busied themselves with a huge play fight in among the human onlookers, much like a cartoon fight where from time to time combatants are flung out of a frenzied blur of limbs. Monkeys were scattered up the slopes of the valley but they all came running down when food was laid out. I guess they have to keep the monkeys coming back somehow. Not completely there by chance, but certainly of their own free will.

I stood watching in wonderment for several minutes as monkeys moved around me as though I was a statue. I spotted one monkey fast asleep, his head resting on a fence post... That was until a little critter jumped onto his back, bounding away before the victim could target the culprit. As the food disappeared the mayhem only increased as packs of monkeys cavorted and chased each other, producing shrills cries as they leaped, bounded and swung from the hot pools down to the river and then back again. All that was missing was the snow which, judging by the photos adorning the wall of the information centre, brings the troupe into a chilly huddle in and around the pool. According to the documentary I had seen only members of a high hierarchical stature are allowed to take the plunge to warm up. Mean monkeys.

And then the rain came so I said a hasty goodbye before getting undercover. It was just a short shower so I had plenty of time to make it back down to the bus stop for my ride back to Nagano and then back to Hakuba village, with only a 20-minute wait between buses. Back at the hostel I met an American father and son who had some interesting stories to tell. The father lost all his money in the property crash in the US and was now writing a screenplay about the real-life murder of an American who was rafting in the Peruvian Amazon basin. Meanwhile, the son had just finished a solo walk from Tokyo to Nagoya. I shared a couple of beers with them and swapped stories before going to bed as I had a train back to Tokyo the following morning. Back to the metropolis and hopefully some nightlife.
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