Update to the JapanesePhotos Instagram at: http://bit.ly/2JcXUZK.
Japan has a lot of quirky things that are just totally unexpected, or cannot be witnessed anywhere else in the world. For this reason alone, Japan must be on every traveller’s bucket list. Among the must see things in Japan are the wild, untamed, untrained, self-motivated Japanese macaques taking nice warm baths in the winter snow and cold.
Photo taken in 2014, before a barrier blocking access to this part of the hot spring bath.
The most iconic place to see this is near the town called Yudanaka, in Nagano Prefecture. It’s a place known for it’s hot spring-public baths, and hot spring resort hotels. We stayed in one of the many resort hotels at the town, near the train station.
Firstly by train, you can take a bullet train to Nagano city from almost any major city in Japan. Then take a local train to Yudanaka. Check into your hotel, and I recommend that you walk around town a little. You’ll find some bilingual signs that point you in the direction of the monkey park. The next morning, wake up as early as you can, and follow these signs up to the Monkey Park. It takes about an hour to walk from the township to where the monkeys are. There are buses from the township to the Monkey Park Entrance area.
Secondly by car, you can easily book and rent a car from Toyota Rental Japan on their English language website. We rented a small Toyota Vitz compact car; a four-wheel drive/SUV is not necessary. On my second trip there, we rented a car, as it would be cheaper than the three of us paying for train tickets. Make sure you get full insurance, snow tires, and an ETC device (and card if you don’t already have one). You’ll be taking toll ways most of the way. You can borrow an ETC card that automatically pays the tolls for you, allowing easy passage; you will of course have to reimburse the card owner/supplier. However, we almost had a crash because of the ETC toll system. The final toll into Yudanaka does not use ETC, but requires an actual ¥100 coin. As we approached the barrier, I slowed the car, but didn’t hear the electronic beep to confirm a payment/connection. I slowed a little more, but when the barrier failed to rise I had to slam on the brakes. My friends and I lost years off of our life expectancies. After a closer inspection of the unmanned toll booth we realised actual money was needed, and a quick scramble we found a ¥100 coin and were in.
If going by car, you’ll pass literally through some mountains, and some of the longest tunnels you’ll experience in your life. I think the longest we went through was perhaps 11km! This makes for a game of guessing how long the next one is; the winner has dinner paid for them.
Thanks to @godwhale (Instagram) for taking this for me, while I was driving.
The actual place is called Jigokudani Monkey Park (in English). There are only two ways that we know of, one is by public bus, and foot (it’s a 1hr 25min walk from Yudanaka Station). In both cases, perhaps the most stress-free way to move about in Japan is to use Google Maps. Please rent a portable WiFi device (now easily available from some AirBnB hosts, and WiFi rental companies), and connect your smart phone or iPad to it. When travelling with friends, we’ve never had a problem or argument when following Google Maps. All your batteries should be fully charged in the morning (think also smart devices, camera batteries, everything), as the cold tends to run them down quickly. Keep your portable WiFi in an inside jacket pocket, so your body heat can help keep it warm and keep the batteries good for the whole day.
It is possible to walk or drive up to the park entrance. Once in, the walk is mostly flat, and very picturesque. At the entrance you will see big signage telling you you must have certain safety gear, which I recommend anyway, and they rent and sell for people who forgot or didn’t know. Make sure you have gloves, sturdy water-repellent footwear, and special grippy-things (crampons) for walking on ice. On my first trip there, my boots caused such blisters and agony, that I went back to my hotel, put on my regular shoes with the grippy-things, and had zero problem. However, because of the cold and risk of twisting your ankle on uneven ground hidden by snow, I’d still recommend snow boots or hiking boots.
From the park entrance, you will need to walk a long the trail to the hot spring area. There’s an initial easy climb, but most of it looks like this:
There are more warning signs. Don’t take in open or unpackaged food. The monkeys will smell it and attack for it. They also don’t want you giving monkeys human food. Also, never look a monkey in the eye; they will perceive it as a threat and a challenge. There are other warnings, but these are the main ones. There are lockers there that you can use to store your food and other valuables in. Also there’s a ticket office that charges for entry.
Once you’re in, don’t be rude or pushy; everyone there just wants to relax and enjoy the spectacle of the monkey culture. The monkeys seem to be on edge, always aware of what other monkeys are doing, and they seem to be alert for sudden tensions. Once a certain monkey enters the bath, other ones immediately leave; it seems like there are monkey factions. If you can figure it out, let me know. For the most part, the monkeys are oblivious to the human tourists. If you or your camera get too close, they will push you out of the way; not rudely, but in the same way you’d open and close a door.
There are two ways to photograph this place. One is to take a few photos, and leave; like many regular tourists. The other is to stay as long as you can (may be an hour or so, at least), and really get to understand the monkeys, how they move, what they do, and so you can predict their movements, so you can take better photos. You’ve spent a lot of time, effort, and money to get there, so why not leave with a huge cache of photos, of which you would be guaranteed a handful of great ones. Make sure you take a telephoto lens. On my first trip, I used mostly a wide lens, because we were allowed to be right up at the edge of the bath, but not anymore. You’ll be behind a barrier, so you’ll need a long lens to zoom in and isolate your subject; I’d recommend a 70-300mm lens, with a hood. The hood should help keep the snow off the front element.
The kind of cameras you see there are as astounding as the wildlife.
There is of course good reason for many people bringing the best cameras. Look at what you get:
There are lunch opportunities there. Within a hundred meters of the monkey hot spring ticket office is a Japanese style hostel, so you can wake up and be the first photographing at the hot spring in your pyjamas, if you insist. However, anyone can dine for lunch there. There’s also a souvenir shop at the ticket office with very limited food options. However, the best places to eat are back at the park entrance near the bus stop and car park. Be there before 11.30am to be sure of a seat. Otherwise, pack a bunch of snacks and have those on the trail back to the park entrance as you leave, before having a warm bite back at the township.
Book your hotel early. Most of them fill up in the month before you plan to go. Most hotels are Japanese style resort hotels, which means they’ll have their own hot springs, luxury Japanese style menu options (which are often not to my liking). The rooms will be simple tatami types, which means you’ll have basic mattresses on the floor. The rooms are warm. The first hotel I stayed in had small seats, but the second didn’t. So, when my friends and I played a card game, it was a bit taxing on the back to be sitting without a backrest.
A view of Yudanaka township from my hotel window.
There aren’t many options, but fortunately there are two good points. Firstly, most restaurants are quite ok. Secondly, there are restaurants near the hotel part of town. There are many hotels, and they seem to be clumped together near the train station. Your hotel will have its own dinner menu, but probably not to your liking. The breakfast menu will not please you with its range of salads and lunch meats, but it will still be edible; you won’t go hungry.
For these images and lots more, see the Yudanaka gallery in my portfolio.
Guess what models I’ve been shooting recently 🐒 😄 I’ve got a tonne of photos to process, and a busy few days ahead.
There are two calendars for 2018 in two new series:
Both calendars are available on our new Lulu.com/ablyth storefront.
When you spend a day out in Japan, what do you really need to carry with you? What do other traveller’s themselves take? Here’s that video, and leave your comments below or on the YouTube channel.
Here’s the iHerb discount link for you: http://www.iherb.com?rcode=WZC316.
We have published a lot of great travel articles, travel guides, and more here on our blog. However, we don’t get paid for it. A lot of people are able to benefit for free, but we struggle to afford the trips and the models we need. Consequently, we will be doing two new projects on Patreon.Com/ablyth.
Sadly, this is the last time we will publish a travel related article for free on our own blog. However, we have not given up, and we will not quit. We have lots, lots, LOTS more to write about, photograph, and share. All our new travel articles will be published on our Patreon page.
I’ve had models come from overseas and want to work with me, and I’ve had to give them warnings and advice on moving about in Japan. Generally, there’s a few key pieces of information that all travellers must have. You simply cannot just turn up and expect everything to work; in this otherwise well managed, smoothly functioning country.
Japanese get very few holidays and little chances of having time off. They are expected to work like slaves through out the year and their lives. For instance, even though legally maternity and paternity leave is generous, generally men can get only really the day of their child’s birth off (and may be a couple more days). That means, there’s just a few opportunities in the year to do things like head back to their home towns. Many Japanese were raised in a different city to where they currently work. Consequently the transport system gets very, very, clogged at the start and end of the holiday periods. Major companies used to coordinate their holidays to be held at the same time, so that it was easy for staff to know if another company is contactable on particular days or not. This led to Friday afternoon jams on public transport like the bullet train, airports, and highways. A two hour trip could become an eight hour ordeal. At the end of the break the so called “U-turn” rush is just as bad. Companies kept this schedule for decades, but only recently have they started to relent to pressure to stagger their holidays, or offer “flexible” holiday periods for their employees. Flexible in quotation, as their is still heavy restrictions on when they can start and end their breaks.
This is a collection of holidays including Children’s Day that were bunched together because having a scattering of days off was too disruptive for companies. The GW holiday usually starts from the last few of days of April and ends at around the 5th of May. The exact dates vary from year to year, and depends on when the weekend is.
The New Year holiday replaces the family focused Chinese or Lunar New Year (CNY) that was celebrated until this post-war period began, and is now largely forgotten from Japanese culture. For European cultures, Christmas is the big family time of year, but CNY was that for Mandarin influenced cultures. Today in Japan, they have completely adopted the Gregorian Calendar, and so the European New Year is celebrated instead. The break normally starts at around the 27th December (depending on when the weekend is), and lasts until about the first weekend of the new year. Usually, you would have to avoid travelling on that first Sunday.
This is also called Obon in Japan. In Mandarin influenced cultures, this is a mid-summer feast to celebrate the end of harvest. In post-agrarian Japan, it seems this is largely forgotten, and is known as a holiday to celebrate the ancestors. It used to be held according to the lunar calendar, but since Westernisation in the late 1800’s, the holiday was fixed to the Gregorian rather than the lunar Calendar, but is still a floating holiday. It generally runs from around the 11th to 16th August each year (depending on the companies). It’s not an official holiday, and so government offices are still open, and many services still operate on normal schedules.
The subways can be crazy-crowded, especially in Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. The times to avoid generally vary by station, by section, and especially by line. Generally avoid the main lines that connect to central nodes, especially between 7.30am to about 8.10am. If you take the train during this rush period, you won’t be standing only shoulder-to-shoulder (yes, let your imagination run wild). If you have a backpack, it’s best to wear it on your front when inside the train.
Two things to be mindful of. The last subway train can run from around 11.40pm to maybe 12.20am. This means, if you miss it, expect an expensive taxi ride home. Check hyperdia.com for train times. The other thing is if there’s a special event or festival. Subway stations are not designed for big event crowds. So when a fireworks display, a baseball game ends, or even a town festival ends, crowds will generally descend on the closest (often only) nearby train station all at once. Don’t plan on any taxis being available, or even a way to drive anywhere between the event and the train station. Crowds can be so thick that even traffic wardens can keep cars at traffic lights waiting for over half an hour or longer, if the roads were allowed to be open at all.
Kyoto residents are proud of their city’s heritage. So beautiful is it, that a captain in WWII in the US military who was tasked to choose bomb sites said that the city has such a cultural and architectural heritage that it should be spared from all bombing. Today, hoards of tourists descend on the city on a daily basis. Many Japanese and Chinese tour groups have their own buses, but North American and European travellers tend to find their own way about town. Consequently, when all the tourist places close at 4.30 or 5pm, suddenly, there are hoards of tourists all trying to cram onto buses or take taxis simultaneously. Consequently, the roads and buses are clogged with lots of very tired travellers and locals.