Wintry Japan: February 2018 (Part 3-Monkey business!)

 

Friday, February 2, 2018

This day’s destination is in large part why we signed up for this trip.  Who can resist startlingly humanoid red-faced monkeys relaxing in a steaming mountain onsen?  A little video preview can be seen here: https://vimeo.com/256250037

Steve couldn’t get enough of these snow monkeys (Japanese macaques)!

For our 7 am departure, in a Toyota van piloted by Susan, we were fully laden with Arctic gloves, snowboarding pants, long underwear, hand warmers, and crampons.

After a few pullovers and a wrong turn, we still reached our destination well before the hoards.  The conditions were perfect, with fresh snow, and a hint of sun in the sky.  The hike in is a mile long, on a mostly level forest road through a snow-covered forest.  We were thoroughly warmed up by the time we reached the site.

Only a small crowd was there when we arrived, which had swollen to hoards by the time we departed.  As we approached, brown furballs were scampering around.

Irresistible! Japanese macaques (snow monkeys), steaming in an onsen.

These Japanese macaques or snow monkeys are small and mobile, very difficult to track when they are on the move, much more stationary and easier to shoot when they take to the water. For a sense of snow monkeys at work on each other, here’s a video clip: https://vimeo.com/256252205

Snow monkey business in Japanese hot spring (onsen).

Their favorite pastime seems to be grooming each other, picking lice, lice eggs, parasites, dead leaves, etc from their fur. While what is picked is generally eaten, the nutritional value of such small quantities suggests this is likely not the primary motivation.  This activity seems to serve more of a social, bonding, possibly even social climbing, function.  Here’s another clip: https://vimeo.com/256251891

Let Mama take a look! Japanese macaques (snow monkeys) spend a lot of time grooming each other.

Japanese macaque (snow monkey) in onsen hot spring in Japan

The predilection of this population of monkeys to warm themselves in hot springs was noted by the locals decades ago, who enlarged and dedicated an onsen for the monkey’s use, leading to establishment of a park in 1964.

Two generations of snow monkeys hanging out at the edge of a Japanese onsen (hot spring ).

Baby monkey business! (Japanese macaques or snow monkeys)

We were fortunate to have fresh snow fall the night before our arrival.  There was little wind and no active snowfall during our morning, near perfect conditions.  Susan had predicted we would have our fill of the snow monkeys after a few hours, but Steve disagreed vehemently and would have liked another session.  As it turned out, we were pleased with our shots, but on a return, might choose to spend more time in the area.

Japanese macaque snow monkey in onsen hot spring

Beautiful snow monkey portrait by Steve Eilenberg

Old man faced snow monkey in Japanese onsen hot spring

Our afternoon was dedicated to shooting Matsumoto castle, the only black castle in Japan and one of the few original, most being destroyed during WW II and later rebuilt.  It is also known as the Karasu-Jō, or Crow Castle, for the black exterior.   What remains is the keep, which dates to the late 16th century.  The snow trimming made it all the more attractive.

Matsumoto Castle, unusual for its black exterior, set off on our visit by snow!

Matsumoto Castle with winter snow.

At dinner near the hotel (after another quick craft beer at Leffe, Osaka citrus (probably yuzu)), a camera crew was making the rounds of the dining room, interviewing the patrons as to their recollections of the Nagano Olympics 20 years ago.

A nice place for happy hour in Nagano, with excellent craft beers, Leffe.

Pedestrian street in Nagano at night, with some residual snow plied-up.

An inviting entryway in Nagano.

Nagano temple rooftops, with snow.

I had salmon sashimi on rice and a cucumber salad, satisfying enough not to join Greg, who headed out for sushi after dinner.  We had joked at the bar that we should rehearse ear wiggles to signal if we needed to go out to dinner afterwards, so we thought he was joking when he texted us after dinner that he was heading out.  He actually did and had another Olympic moment, chatting (as much as limited Japanese on his side and English on their side permitted) with a Japanese figure skater, with her mother and coach.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

After an excellent breakfast in the hotel at 7 am, Greg, Bill and I headed out at 7:30 am with Susan to Zenkō-ji, which proved to be a sizable Buddhist temple complex.

Nagano’s Zenkō-ji Buddist temple stirring on a cold sunny morning, with snow on the ground.

Founded in the 7th century, it is said to house the first Buddha figure brought into Japan.  The walk was pleasant, further up the street from our craft beer bar, an attractive promenade with shops and restaurants.

O-mikuji, random fortunes, in a candy-colored array of colors, available at Japanese temples such as Zenkō-ji, usually for a 5 Yen offering.  Maybe I should have availed myself of one to change my luck, which took a drastic turn for the worse after this day.  

Straw sandals (waraji) at Nagano’s Zenkō-ji Buddist temple. In centuries past, pilgrims left the sandals they wore out at temples as offerings.  Judith Clancy, in her book Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital, explains that the sandals “represent spiritual adversities faced and surmounted.”  The wearing of sandals like these persisted to the 20th century; I remember my mother and her sisters pointing them out in a museum of farm implements as similar to what their mother and grandmother made and wore as farmers.

Since this was to be a travel day given over to planes, trains and buses, we also elected to walk back for a little more exercise.

The shinkansen sped us to Tokyo station, where we rode a bus to Haneda, to catch a plane to Kushiro, Hokkaido.

Greg and I passed the time on the plane watching the cringe-worthy comedy Ingrid Goes West. Ingrid is a disturbed, obsessive young woman who uses social media to endear herself to an Instagram lifestyle star. Meanwhile, we were off to snowy Hokkaido, Japanese’s northern frontier. My personal fortunes were about to turn seriously sour.

-Marie

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