I always travel alone as I can take my time and I’m independent of anything or anybody else. Japan is the safest place for that and it has very convenient transportation and lodging. My idea of a good vacation is to visit a quiet place and to surround myself with nature. Nagano Prefecture was a perfect fit!
In April 2015 I went to see Jigokudani Yaen Koen (Snow Monkey Park). One can take a Shinkansen to Nagano, but I prefer to save money. I took a very comfortable bus, a cost saving twice the amount of a bullet train. In Nagano, I took a train to Yudanaka Station. There are many ryokans with onsen (hot spring bath) at Yudanaka Station that one must try to feel Japan! From most of the ryokans and hotels, there are free shuttle buses to Jigokudani Yaen Koen.
At the end of April, hanami (the season of sakura blooming) was over in Tokyo, but in Nagano, I could still enjoy it. At the center of Yudanaka, there is a river that sounds like a waterfall. You can even hear it flowing from beneath the ground when you walk in Yudanaka and I found it very soothing. Yudanaka is surrounded by mountains and the view was very different every day. From the mysterious clouds to red hues in the sunset, and clear skies in the sunshine, I could understand why artists choose to paint these mountains!
The way to Jigokudani Yaen Koen was in mountains and the last few kilometers there was only a trail but quite spectacular and full of wonderful forest smell. Along that trail, there was information about the monkeys and their life in that place. Monkeys sleep in the mountains and come down to the park in the morning. I had been told that the monkeys stay in onsen mostly in cold time, so when I went to the Yaen Koen I wondered if I could see any. But, at the very entrance, I saw a monkey! The place was surrounded by high rocks with an onsen in the middle. Monkeys were not friendly or aggressive – it seemed they didn’t notice people at all and lived their own life. There were families and single monkeys, babies playing together and few monkeys that soaked in the onsen.
It was the very first time I have experienced watching animals in the wild live their daily lives and take photos in the process. I could see that the monkeys had different personalities and they reminded me people in a funny way. There were mothers with babies and very quiet expressions on faces. There were lazy males and lively curious “kids.” One of them pulled my umbrella to try a new toy! I could watch some quarrels between the monkeys and “care”scenes right near me. It was really exciting!
People also behaved and didn’t bother the monkeys. One couldn’t feed the monkeys or eat in that place because they got special food from the staff. I took my time and stayed there for few hours. I walked all the way back to my ryokan and enjoyed the scenery around.
After a long walk, soaking in the onsen was really good. In the evening I found a good place to eat just around the corner – the family restaurant with traditional Japanese food. I dined there all four nights during my stay in Yudanaka and was received very warmly there. It was my dream – to stay away from the city, to walk within nature and to eat at one place every night. As a side trip from Yudanaka, I went to the Floral Garden Obuse. April in Japan is a blooming season, so for a citizen like me, it looked like a Paradise!
For travelers who like nature and animals, visiting Jigokudani Yaen Koen may be very exciting, indeed!