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Nagano Snow Monkeys & Soba Noodles – A Long Leap

| March 29, 2013 | 3 Comments
Snow monkey, Jigokudani, Nagano

Snow monkey, Jigokudani, Nagano

Travelling to see the snow monkeys at Jigokudani in Nagano, Japan has been one of the most memorable experiences and it’s still one that I constantly tell friends about when the subject of travel to Japan comes up. It was part of a two week trip to Japan in November 2009, which included Tokyo, Kyoto, Yokohama and Numazu, and took quite a bit of planning and coordination to fit everything in.

We stayed one night at the 400 year old Kokuya ryokan in the hot spring town of Shibu Onsen. A combination of elements made this a truly perfect stay – the exquisite kaiseki dinner in a private dining room, the elaborate breakfast complete with the inn’s own onsen tamago, and best of all our very own private rooftop onsen bath, from where we saw a curious snow monkey on the roof.

The snow monkeys keep warm in their very own natural hot spring. When we went to see them after breakfast, it was extremely wet and miserable, so they seemed content to observe us cold humans from the comfort of their hot spring. After taking hundreds of photos of the photogenic monkeys, we were off again, to attend a private soba noodle cookery lesson with an elderly farmer called Mrs Sato. She spoke no English and was absolutely charming. We learnt so much from her, enjoyed a delicious lunch of our noodles with her homemade pickles and left armed with her farm apples and buckwheat seeds.

You can read all about this trip in my book a ‘traveleating’ journal: japan, which is free on iTunes. It was originally a book created using Blurb to raise money for a Beijing-based charity. Copied here is the full text from the Nagano chapter of the book:

The reason for this short trip to Shibu Onsen, Yamanouchi town, Nagano prefecture in the Japan Alps, was to see the Jigokudani snow monkeys. These wild Japanese macaques keep warm in the freezing winter months by bathing in their own outdoor onsen (natural hot spring), and this is apparently the only place in the world where monkeys do this. Jigokudani, known as Hell Valley because of its sulphurous volcanic activity, is not the easiest destination to reach, and our one night at the 400 year old Kokuya luxury ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) in Shibu Onsen was expensive. The journey was, however, worth every minute and every yen and was one of the highlights of the entire Japan trip.

If you ski or snowboard, then Shiga Kogen ski resort is nearby and Jigokudani could be added on as a side destination.

Kokuya

Kokuya ryokan is a three storey maze of rooms and baths. The 400 year old building has been added to over the years to reach its present size, and hotel guests are encouraged to wander around and explore. Our spacious room, the Fuyo, was located on the third and top floor and freshly baked soba & sesame mini cookies, wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) and green tea were a lovely welcoming touch.
The star attraction was the private bath located on our balcony, screened off by bamboo to ensure privacy, but only partially covered so that guests can enjoy the contrast of being in the cold while soaking in the extreme heat of the natural hot spring. The Japanese apparently like the water as hot as 50°C, but as it was our own private bath, we could add as much cold water as we wanted. My favourite spot was by the cold tap! We had four long soaks in total, before and after dinner and before and after breakfast, but this still wasn’t enough.
Also, while we were admiring the view of the mountains from the bath, we noticed a snow monkey running across the rooftops. It was completely unexpected because Jigokudani monkey park was at least fifty minutes away on foot. It really was a special moment…
The traditional kaiseki dinner was served in our own private dining room with tatami mat seating. The menu changes regularly according to the fresh seasonal ingredients that are sourced locally.
Highlights from the fourteen courses included baked rainbow trout pie, simmered sea bream with grated daikon (Japanese radish), vinegared crab with radish, handmade soba (buckwheat noodles) and the freshest rice we had ever eaten, known as ‘first rice crop of the year’. It was also fun listening to an elderly Japanese couple chatting and enjoying their dinner in the adjoining private room, as if we were on the set of an Ozu or Naruse film…
After dinner, we went for a short walk. Shibu Onsen is a famous traditional onsen spa town where people dressed in yukata (cotton robes) stroll down old, narrow cobbled streets after bathing at one or more of the nine public bath houses to relax at a izakaya (Japanese pub). Dotted around the area were tiny temples and it was very atmospheric at night. I don’t think we encountered more than two or three people that evening.
Breakfast was an unexpectedly huge affair, laid out for us in the same private dining room, with countless dishes of grilled salmon, pickles, rice, soup, tofu and onsen tamago (eggs cooked in the hot spring located just outside Kokuya’s entrance). They were fresh, creamy and delicate – pure heaven. Eating onsen tamago anywhere else apart from at an onsen just isn’t the same.

Jigokudani

After breakfast, it was finally time to see the snow monkeys at Jigokudani. From Kokuya, it’s supposedly a good 50 minute walk (2.5 km). We had planned to walk, but as it was raining extremely hard, we went instead by taxi with borrowed umbrellas and wellington boots from Kokuya (along with a present of homemade umeboshi onigiri (pickled plum riceballs) for our journey!).
We soon discovered that the walk would have been extremely difficult as most of it was uphill along a steep narrow road through the forest, followed by another steep and slippery walk from the carpark to get to the monkey onsen area. Attempting that hike in the heavy winter snow would not be fun, although winter time is best for visiting the monkeys, covered in snow.
There are an estimated two hundred snow monkeys in the area, and we saw about eighty of them. The advice that I had read online was not to feed them, and more importantly, not to stare at them because this is considered to be a sign of aggression. However, they were incredibly relaxed around humans (admittedly there were only four visitors rather than coachloads because of the poor weather) and at one point a baby and its mother came right up to me. Crouching down to take photos also made me appear less threatening. We must have taken hundreds of photos between us.

Mrs Sato’s soba making class

When we had taken enough photos of snow monkeys, it was time for a spot of lunch. Rather than turning up at a soba-ya (soba restaurant) to sample the region’s famous noodles, we turned up for our very own private soba making class ( ¥2000 / £13.50 per person), pre-arranged through Kokuya.
Mrs Sato is the sweetest and friendliest teacher you could find. Although she didn’t speak a word of English and my Japanese was terrible, we somehow managed to communicate really well. As a result, Garson Byer managed to make some very tasty soba noodles, which we ate cold with Mrs Sato’s homemade dipping sauce and her own pickles, the freshest young corn on the cob and red apples (the region is famous for its apples), all grown on her farm (Ippuu) near Yudanaka. Mrs Sato gave us some buckwheat seeds to grow in our garden, and then drove us back to the train station!  You can also stay with Mrs Sato on her farm, help out with the harvesting and learn to make soba, pickles and miso. We’ll be doing this next time.
It was the perfect way to end the Japan Alps trip…

Practical Information

From Nagano train station, we took the local Nagano Dentetsu (Nagaden) to Yudanaka station (33 km, approx 47 minutes). A station employee helped us buy our tickets using the ticket machine. Tip: sit at the very front of the train to see the amazing view (we only discovered this when we arrived). The Kokuya ryokan shuttle bus picked us up at Yudanaka, otherwise Kokuya is just a short taxi ride away.

As soon as I read about Kokuya, I knew I wanted to stay there.  I chose the Fuyo room, one of ten large rooms with a private open air natural hot spring bath on the balcony and which can accommodate up to four or more people. The cost is listed per person per night (for the Fuyo, it was ¥25,000 (£167) per person during low season), which includes the multiple course kaiseki dinner and a traditional Japanese breakfast, one of the most substantial that I have ever had. There are also six other natural hot spring baths for guests, four outdoor and two indoor, with a further two that can be reserved for private use (useful for guests not staying in rooms with private baths).

Finally, I wouldn’t have been able to organise this 36 hour trip without Kokuya’s help and I’ve lost count of the number of emails we must have exchanged over the months preceding the stay. Mrs Sato’s soba making class was arranged through Kokuya, but here are her contact details if you want to stay at Ippu, her farm and B&B, which is close to Yudanaka station. As she doesn’t speak English, you will probably need a Japanese speaker to help make  any arrangements.We’re definitely returning for more luxurious pampering and will stay for two nights so that we can have more baths and of course much more food.

Kokuya
Shibu Onsen
Yamanouchi
Shimotakai-gun
Nagano 381-040
Tel: 81 (0) 269 33 2511
Fax: 81 (0) 269 33 4597
info@ichizaemom.com

 

Ippuu
4845 Hirao
Yamanouchi-machi
Nagano 381-0401
Fax: 81 (0) 269 33 0324
webmaster@ippuu-apple.com

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Category: food, long leaps, photos, travel

Comments (3)

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  1. Karine says:

    Hi! I’m heading to Jigokudani National Park over New Years to see the beautiful snow monkeys – the soba class sounds ace though – do you have any details for how to book? Thanks!

    • admin says:

      Hi, you can find Mrs Sato at her website http://www.ippuu-apple.com/. Or contact her via the ryokan as there is a member of staff who speaks English, whereas Mrs Sato doesn’t speak any English. You can also download my e-book for free which has all the details about the trip. Have fun!

    • admin says:

      Hi again Karine, I updated my post so that you can see all the practical information that you might need. Enjoy your trip!

      Helen

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