The day of the 2014 Tokyo Marathon was one of the best days of my life, even though I did not run the marathon. After realizing that I could not run because of my back, I told Lauren that the only way I would make it through the day without being super upset and unpleasant was if we went to see the snow monkeys.
I first heard about the snow monkeys on Buzzfeed, obviously. They live in the mountains of Japan outside Nagano (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics) and bathe in the onsen (hot springs) to keep warm during the winter. There is a park where you can go see them, and when I decided I was going to Japan, that was literally the only thing I wanted to do besides run the marathon. When Lauren decided to come with me, our plans changed a bit and the snow monkeys were off the table due to scheduling issues. The only good thing about deciding not to run the marathon was that it meant we had an extra day to sightsee and could go see the monkeys, and oh, what a great thing it was.
The day started off with a bullet train (shinkansen) ride to Nagano. The trains are ridiculously fast and very clean and comfortable. There are seats. If you’re envisioning the NYC subway, don’t. It’s more like being on a plane, except you can actually move your legs.
The train ride from Tokyo to Nagano takes about 2 hours, and once we arrived, we dropped our luggage off at the hotel and grabbed some food. The internet was a bit ambiguous about how exactly to get to the monkey park from Nagano, but we were pretty sure we could just grab a train and get there pretty quickly. That turned out to be false. We quickly learned that we would need to take either a train-bus combination or just a bus, and either way, it would take about an hour to get to the entrance of the park. Then, we’d have a 40 minute hike to get to where the actual monkeys are. Oops! We figured this out at 12:23 pm, exactly 3 minutes after the most recent train left and with an hour til the next one. The park closed at 4, which didn’t leave us very much time. So we took the world’s most expensive cab ride because there was no way in hell we had come all the way to Nagano to not see the snow monkeys. About $115 later (seriously), we arrived at the entrance to the park, half giddy and half judging ourselves.
There was snow everywhere thanks to the huge storm Japan had the week before we arrived. I was in heaven! We didn’t really know what to expect from the hike, as some websites said it was ridiculously hard and slippery and took forever and some said it was easy. The first 25 yards were straight uphill and icy as we went around a curve and Lauren and I just looked at each other and thought “Oh, shit.” It turned out that once you got past that first section, the rest of it really was easy, and thanks to the relatively fresh snow, not too icy! Oh, and did I mention it was breathtakingly beautiful?
I wouldn’t consider myself a peaceful person. As you’ve probably gleaned from the blog, I struggle a lot with anxiety and depression. It’s not very often I feel completely and totally content. This hike was one of those rare, wonderful times. For lack of a better word, I felt so…zen. I told Lauren that even if we couldn’t really see the snow monkeys or get that close to them, the trip was already worth it to me. I’m not sure she agreed at that point, but to be fair, it was a pretty expensive cab ride.
Jigokudani Monkey Park is adjacent to Jigokudani National Park, and entry is super inexpensive – less than $5 US – probably because it’s kind of a pain in the ass to get to. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived. Would the monkeys be in the hot springs? Would they be super far away? Would we even be able to see any? Those questions were answered literally as soon as we bought our tickets and walked about 5 feet into the park.
There are literally monkeys everywhere. They run right in front of you, swing on ropes, all sorts of nonsense. We had been warned repeatedly not to touch the monkeys or look them in the eyes because they are very mean and will claw your eyes out (or throw poop on you, possibly) but honestly, if no one had told me that, I would have grabbed one of those monkeys in a second. I had no idea they would let you get so close! It’s like they don’t even notice that humans are around. It’s like the popular kids in high school – those bastards will look right through you like you don’t exist. Despite being a reasonably intelligent 28-year old, it took every ounce of restraint I had not to pet one of the monkeys. How children managed to stop themselves is completely beyond me.
Lauren and I kept saying “Is this really happening right now?” because it was seriously the most strange and wonderful thing I have ever seen. If I could live in that monkey park I probably would. It was the best $5 I have ever spent, cab ride not withstanding.
About 2000 pictures later, we started the trek back. I had one more thing I had to take care of before we left. Back in December, I heard about a project called Scattering CJ. CJ was a 20-year old former Marine who took his life after an argument with his mother. Overwhelmed by guilt and grief, his mom started the project with the hopes of scattering CJ’s ashes all around the world. I reached out to Hallie and told her about my upcoming trips to Japan and South America in hopes that I could help, and I was honored to receive two packets of CJ’s ashes to spread on my journeys. While I originally intended to scatter the ashes on a trip to Mt. Fuji, we weren’t able to go because of the weather. I figured I would find the right place at some point on the trip, and when we were hiking to the park, I knew it was the perfect spot because of the amazing and rare sense of calm I felt on that path. So I’m happy to report that CJ got to see the monkeys with me and now has a pretty awesome view of the Japanese Alps.
The hike back down was a little more slippery, but we made it.
When we made it to the train station (God knows we weren’t taking another cab ride back to Nagano), there was basically mass confusion about what tickets to buy and what time the train left. An attendant was running around shouting instructions – in English, thankfully – and she would grab the money out of your hand and buy your ticket for you. Super helpful, but also kind of unsettling since we weren’t 100% sure we were all on the same page. We heard a group of guys laughing and speaking English in American accents and we almost cried with joy. It’s a really weird feeling to only be able to talk to one person with any kind of conversational depth for a prolonged period of time, so when we realized there were FIVE people that we could talk to that clearly understood us, we were beside ourselves. The guys are officers in the Navy and come to Japan a few times a year for work, so they take day trips out to different areas to see as much of the country as possible. They had just been to the monkey park too, so we spent the entire train ride back to Nagano rehashing the sheer magnitude of that experience.
We ended up having so much fun with them and were really sad to hear they were heading back to Tokyo on the bullet train. They had about an hour and a half to kill before they had to leave, so they took us to 7-11 to show us these crazy Japanese malt liquor drinks that they love called “Strong.” Our whole group bought a bunch and stood outside drinking cans of what is basically a superior, Japanese version of Smirnoff Ice like we were in high school. Upon reflection, I now realize that letting 5 military guys take you to a convenience store and ply you with canned liquor is maybe not Safe Travel Tip #1, but they were so funny and nice (and we were so relieved to be speaking English to someone other than each other) that the thought never even occurred to us.
We all decided to hit up a local restaurant/bar for some drinks before the guys had to leave, and I bonded with two of them over the wonders of frequent flyer miles accumulation and hotel and airline status. Lauren and one of the other guys described it as “the least sexy conversation they had ever heard” which just goes to show that they know nothing about sexy conversation. They are stationed in Yokohama, so they spent a good bit of time convincing us to change our plans and come hang out with them a couple nights later before we left, which we did not commit to because we’re obviously in high demand, but we promised to consider the idea.
And consider we did over about 4 more beers and more food than we could ever possibly hope to consume. The menu had lots of intriguing items like “Avocado Tempura” and “Cheese Tempura,” which I obviously understand is fried avocado and fried cheese. I don’t normally eat fried food thanks to my stomach, but in this case, I was willing to make an exception. The Japanese have an interesting system of ordering food where the menu will show, say, a stack of soft pretzels. You point to it, the waitress says “one?” and you think “one stack” but they mean “one pretzel” and then you’re real confused when that’s what shows up. Well, the same thing happened with the avocado and cheese. We got one slice of avocado and one piece of cheese, and it was the most delicious thing I had ever consumed. So maybe I got a little overzealous and ordered 6 more. Of each.
We also got some delicious ramen (with raw egg, because of course), udon noodles, and grilled bacon on a stick.
I think you can see why this was the best day ever.