My weekends in Tokyo seem to follow a similar pattern most of the time. I finish work around 6pm on a Saturday, usually go for dinner and drinks and – bar the occasional footy game or other random sporting event on a Sunday – this pretty much sets the tone!
It’s all well and good to say when you’re living abroad that you’re going to go all over the place and make the most of your weekends, but the truth is that after a while of working five days a week the novelty wears off a bit and your weekends aren’t too dissimilar to those at home! Add this to the fact that travelling around Japan isn’t cheap, and you see why the initial buzz can disappear after a while.
Of course exceptions are made during big school holidays, but for me to go away on a normal weekend is quite rare. The weekend just gone though was an exception to the rule, as my mate Luke and I visited Nagano on our day off and, more specifically, headed up to Jigokudani Monkey Park to see the famous snow monkeys!
You’d be well within your rights to question my wisdom here. I absolutely hate snow, and I’m terrified of monkeys; why did I think this was a good idea? Actually, while I’m on that topic, in Japan I’m always greeted with shock when I tell people I hate snow and rain. Their response is always “BUT YOU’RE ENGLISH!”, as if English people can’t get enough of the rain! Next time a Japanese person complains about an earthquake, maybe I should respond with “BUT YOU’RE JAPANESE!”. Or maybe not.
Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes. I hate snow and I’m shit-scared of monkeys, so why did I want to go to a ‘monkey park’ situated in a snowy part of the country and inhabited by hundreds of the buggers? Truth be told I don’t know, but it’s been on my list ever since I saw it on a BBC documentary just before coming out here. I also have this fear of missing out, where I just cannot say no to most things as I’m worried people will have a good time without me, so that definitely played a part too. It also probably explains why I’m permanently skint.
We decided to do this trip as cheaply as possible and, since hotels are somewhat pricey in Japan, we decided to simply do without one. Instead we’d be catching the night bus from Tokyo on the Sunday night, arriving in Nagano first thing Monday morning and setting off back to Tokyo that evening. My experiences of night buses in the past have been fairly negative – especially the time in Vietnam when I had an ever so slightly upset stomach – but since coming to Japan I’ve started to realise that they’re not a bad option when time and money is limited. In fact, without a night bus I’d have struggled to make it to the Japanese Grand Prix back in October!
We arrived in Nagano around 5am and, unfortunately for me, it was snowing quite heavily! Another problem we faced was the fact that it was a good four hours until the monkey park even opened, and probably at least two or three until anything else opened.
There was only one thing for it: we needed a 24 hour Denny’s.
As luck would have it, there was one just under a kilometre’s walk away so we set off in that direction, and were greeted by the big yellow sign not long after that. Never have two people been so delighted to see a budget, tacky, mediocre diner before.
We were both starving, cold and knackered, so when the lady told us we had a half hour wait until breakfast would be served it felt like a punch in the gut. It wasn’t as if we were pushed for time though, so we decided to stick around and wait it out whilst planning the day.
Finally, as 6am rolled around (well, we actually placed our order at 5.57am just be be rebellious) it was time to tuck into the closest thing you can get to a full English in Japan. Bacon, sausages, eggs and salad; isn’t that what you come to Japan for? The unlimited coffee came in extremely handy here too, as did the leftover whisky/sleeping medicine I had from the journey.
Two and a half hours quickly passed (read: we were delirious from a lack of sleep) and it was time to make our way to the monkey park. After purchasing our ¥3,200 one-day pass for transport and entry, we were a little miffed to discover that buses from the city to the park only run once an hour at most; a little ridiculous for what seems to be a very popular tourist destination! Apparently the bus journey from Nagano to the park takes around 45 minutes, but it felt like 2 to me as I was asleep from the second we left the bus station to the instant we pulled into the car park.
Unfortunately the bus only drops you at a museum just under two kilometers from the park, so it was up to us to tackle the icy, snowy path to our destination. Thankfully my manager had told me in advance that I’d want to wear shoes with grip; this turned out to be the best advice I’ve received in a while as I almost found myself on my arse on a number of occasions. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I’d rocked up wearing my Vans as I’d initially planned!
After about half an hour we finally arrived at the park and to be honest I was a little surprised at how small it was. I was expecting this big national park style place where you could wander round at a leisurely pace and spend a few hours, but in reality we were limited to one rather crowded viewing platform of a load of monkeys in the onsen (natural hot spring) and a couple of snowy hills.
If that sounds like a complaint (and knowing me, you’d be well within your rights to expect it to be!) it actually isn’t. Yes, it was a little crowded but it had nothing on the crowds witnessed at other big tourist attractions in Japan – Golden Week in Kyoto instantly springs to mind! Besides the more people there are, the less chance there is of the little bastards nicking my phone. Every cloud and all that.
I was quite surprised to see how calm the monkeys were. They were pretty much surrounded by people with cameras but they didn’t seem to mind and the park staff were there to make sure people didn’t get too close and that the animals were given enough space. In fact, one woman got a little too close and the guard actually full-on yelled at her which, funnily enough, scared everyone in the park aside from the monkey who just carried on chilling on the post we was sitting on!
As Luke was off taking his professional photos on his swanky camera, I just found myself wandering around taking far too many snaps on my iPhone 5s. Despite my initial fears, I found that I could have stood and watched the monkeys all day. I was absolutely fascinated by their habits and mannerisms, particularly the way they would scratch each other’s backs and pick out any random bits (ticks?) and either dispose of them or eat them! I guess it’s not too dissimilar to a human eating their own bogies, right? Then again, I don’t know anyone who eats other people’s nose dirt, so maybe not!
In total we stayed about an hour, which was pretty good going considering how small the place was! After catching the just-as-infrequent-on-the-way-back bus back into the city, we found ourselves with four hours to kill in Nagano which – as we soon discovered – was far too long.
One thing I’m never short of when travelling around Japan is food recommendations. My students are very proud of their food culture and often give me a detailed breakdown of what I should eat in which city and so on. In Nagano, soba noodles were on the ‘to eat’ list as it’s apparently where they’re from. I have to be honest and say I’m not a big soba fan to begin with; I find them really plain and would certainly be close to the bottom if I was to compile a list of my favourite noodles. There’s a future post waiting to happen!
Anyway, as I’m one to embrace the culture I decided to swallow my pride and order the soba noodles. I’ll let the picture do the talking.
After an underwhelming but not entirely unexpected meal, we headed up to just about the only tourist attraction we could find in the city: Zenkoji temple.
Now just as I feel like most soba noodles taste the same, I’ve got to the stage with temples where I feel like they all just kind of merge into one. Because of this, I was surprised to really enjoy wandering around Zenkoji and the surrounding areas. The streets leading up to the temple were very reminiscent of those in Nara, and the temple itself had a bit of character and stood out a bit more than most!
As is the case with temples though, once you’ve had a quick wander around there’s not a great deal else to do. We whiled away the final hours of our trip in Starbucks before taking the evening bus back to Tokyo. Just like I seem to say after every trip of this nature: I’ve never been so happy to see my bed!