Japan is known for so many things: cherry blossoms, cleanliness, organization, and train schedules that are down to the second just to name a few. I have been up and down this country from top to bottom, left and right, and there are endless things to do and the people make it so comfortable and hospitable you may never want to leave. Just outside the Olympic village in Nagano, nestled in the mountains, is a small community that has become famous for its dwellers that enjoy taking a bath just as much as you and I.
The islands that make up Japan are very mountainous and the local people have taken full advantage of this by the amount of natural hot springs, called ‘onsen’ in Japanese, that ooze out of their hillsides. You can find them in almost every town in the country, but in the tiny town of Yudanaka it has a whole new meaning.
Just a short train east of Nagano in the mountains, this little town lies outside the Jigokudani Monkey Park. It is an area that is used to tourists because not only are there an abundance of hot springs to rest your weary muscles, the town locals have taken one for themselves that you cannot use. By town locals, I mean the Japanese macaque that are known around the world as the snow monkeys.
The town itself is very small and don’t expect to find much English or any other language spoken there. You will more than likely have to order food by picture menus or in writing that you cannot decipher. But that does not mean you can’t have a great experience. Everyone in Japan is used to tourists and are very welcoming, and Yudanaka is no exception.
A short hike upstream to the park is where you will find these hairy critters taking advantage of a good bath. Now monkeys can get a little testy so I would not get too close, but they are so used to people they may walk right up behind you unexpected, especially if they can smell something to eat in a backpack or purse. I have read that you can find them in this area at any time of year because they have gotten so accustomed to tourists, but they usually come out of the mountains in the winter time to warm up in the waters of the onsens. However, we were there in the middle of summer and they were still bouncing around in the shade and healing waters.
Once you enter the area itself, you will probably be surrounded by monkeys just hanging out, napping or even trying to steal your banana. Continue walking up the trail to the place where the side of the mountain has been carved out and the hot springs naturally flow into these pools that are only allowed by the monkeys. You will find them posing, bathing each other and just overall soaking in the warm of the mineral waters.
If you don’t believe me about how hot the waters can be check this out:
This was a little place on the street that they are just boiling eggs using the water running right out of the hills. The waters that pour out of the mountains are sulfurous so definitely at times have that rotten egg smell. But I think if the monkeys know how naturally good it is on the body, we should indulge too.
There are a couple of places in town to stay at on some of the tiny streets, and usually a lot of them have their own onsen that you can use to take your own rest time. If it doesn’t, there are a few in town that are public that are easy to find as the place is not that big. We were trying to arrange a few things ahead of time with the place we were staying at and did not get much response, only because of lack of English we think. But don’t consider it rude, it just may be hard to translate and communicate back and forth. Once we arrived they were very welcoming and wanting to help us relax in their little town. Our place didn’t even have beds like you and I may think. They had the traditional Japanese rice bed and let me tell you, I had one of the best sleeps of my life on it. Super comfy!!
I know that when people take their first trip overseas you usually take in the major cities and landmarks, which I agree you should. Sometimes, getting outside all of that can make a more memorable trip, a dive into different cultures, and the warm welcoming of smaller communities. This tiny place is for sure one you should take in. Not to mention travel in Japan is so convenient with their train system, know as ‘shinkansen,’ which are high speed trains that network all over the county and are incredibly efficient and fast. Sometimes they will show you their speed, that reach up to 300km/h.
You can always stay at nearby Nagano, which is more of a city and has more English available. Using these trains you can easily just take a day trip into the park area. Do whatever makes your adventure best and more comfortable, but if you are travelling to Japan, I would try to squeeze in this place. It is worth the tangent.