Japan (OTBT) – Yudanaka town and the Snow Monkeys

There are a million reasons to visit Japan. We loved our 2017 whirlwind trip there. Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima – all amazing places. But some of our best times were spent at a few of the out of the way towns taking in the culture, the music, the food and the wildlife.

Yudanaka is about a 3-½ hr. trip from Tokyo.  We took the JR Shinkansen (Bullet Train) named ASAMA to Nagano and then transferred from there to a local train. Upon arriving in the sleepy little town of Yudanaka, we found our ryokan easily. 

Shinkansen, Japan

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese Inn – the kind with tatami mats on the floor. You eat on a table that is 6 inches above the floor and sleep on futons or mattresses on the floor. The entire inn is decorated in traditional Japanese style, and yes, everyone takes their shoes off by the front door and wears the slippers that are provided. Our ryokan was Yudanaka Onsen Seifuso– highly recommended.

Yundanka Onsen Seifuso, Japan – Traditional Ryokan Room

Most ryokans also have onsens – a bathing area that is fed by a hot spring. Japan is a volcanic island and there are thousands of onsens scattered all over the island. The Japanese love to bathe and there is a tradition of enjoying these onsens while naked and often coed!

Fortunately for prudish Canadians, most of the ryokans you are likely to stay at have separate onsens for men and women. You still have to go in “au naturel” however. 

Outdoor Onsen, Yudanka Onsen Seifuso Ryokan, Japan

Sometimes the same onsen varies a lot in temperature. I went down early one morning and found the water too hot for me to dip in a toe! Later that evening, the temperature was down to a balmy 106 degrees Celsius. 

Most of the ryokans include supper and breakfast. Our ryokan served us a delectable dinner of about 10 different courses including, sashimi, Japanese pickles/condiments, Kobe beef, veggies, noodles (soba), tempura, karage, steamed trout, soup, rice, tea and sake. 

Each course is delivered by a Geisha in a lovely kimono who dutifully removes her slippers each time she enters the room, bows, then gets down on her knees to place the next course on the table. We were surprised that the Japanese traditionally serve soup and rice at the end of the meal – so don’t leave the table prematurely or you will get a delicate scolding!

Shannon playing Geisha in a Kimono provided for the stay.

For a couple over 50 years of age, our night sleeping on the floor of the ryokan was memorable orthopedically. I doubled-up my mattress with extra bedding in a vain attempt to spare my back. Pre-medicating with your favourite anti-inflammatory is recommended.

Typical Ryokan Room – note bed on the floor!

We took breakfast in the main floor sitting room where we enjoyed quaint, traditional Japanese fare served in adorable, little china vessels. There was tamago (egg), exquisite salmon, tofu, fuji apple and strawberry, cooked ham, miso, rice, seaweed wrap and condiments. Everything was yummy although definitely unorthodox for our conservative breakfast taste buds! 

Colin digging into his first ryokan meal, Japan.

After breakfast we were driven out to the Jigokudani Monkey Parkwhere the “snow monkeys” – Macaques – are frolicking in their own onsen. This troupe consists of over 200 individuals. There were a lot of babies and it was fun to watch them roughhousing in the water. It’s about a 35-minute walk through forest to get to the animals. In April it was very mucky terrain, with a lot of snow still on the ground – but not cold at all.

Mom & Babe Snow Monkeys

We spent about 90 minutes with the snow monkeys – definitely one of the highlights of our first 6 days in Japan. This onsen was built specially for the monkeys in 1964, who have been using it ever since. The Japanese also feed them, so it’s not a true wilderness experience, but they are feral and live in the uninhabited forests above the onsen. 

The Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani

Snow monkeys used to be considered pests by farmers in the plains below and were actively hunted. The original monkeys used the plains in the winter and went to the high mountains through the summer, but as humans have encroached on the plains – they are quite densely inhabited – the monkeys have lost that winter option. This arrangement is a nice compromise and they are not in any way endangered. Indeed, judging by the amount of babies, they are flourishing. They are fun to just watch and were quite unperturbed by our presence.

Snow Monkeys “Macaques” Japan
Pensive Macaque, Japan

If you go: I would recommend 2 nights in this area to see the Snow Monkeys and stay in a traditional ryokan.

Macaque’s frolicking in the onsen, Japan

A few things to remember: 

  • It is very useful to get a Shinkansen Rail Pass if you are travel around the country. They will get you unlimited travel of MOST of the bullet trains. You will still need passes for the local trains. Read more about it here: https://www.jrailpass.com/shinkansen-bullet-trains
  • Get a “bento box” lunch in the train station for your trip.
  • The Japanese don’t believe in tipping, it is insulting.
  • The Japanese like to give and receive small gifts. We were given a jar of homemade jam upon checking out. We gave them a CD of our original music. They were very excited. (Hopefully they weren’t disappointed!)
  • Be sure to learn a few Japanese phrases before you go – thank you, good day, goodbye, etc. It will go a long way to helping you to feel comfortable and you will be rewarded!
  • Remember, the macaques are wild animals. Don’t get too close. Move out of the way if they approach you.
  • Check out this link for more information on Yudanaka and other places to stay: https://www.snowmonkeyresorts.com/smr/yudanakaonsen/
Typical Bento Box

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