Japan is truly a place where magic can be found anywhere. From the bustling cities to the remote country towns, every place has a unique charm that can’t be found anywhere else. Of course, our little side trip to Nagano last year was no exception! Despite being a little off the beaten path, it’s totally worth a visit if you get the chance.
Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even consider visiting Nagano if it wasn’t for my friend. She was determined to visit the famous Japanese snow monkeys, and why not? Our trip happened to be during winter, aka peak season to see them in their natural habitat. So that’s how we found ourselves travelling to Yamanouchi (山ノ内) a small country town in Nagano prefecture. While I’ve visited my fair share of rural towns in Japan, this was the first where the train line didn’t even accept IC travel cards as payment. Imagine that, having to buy a paper ticket in this day and age!
The journey to Yamanouchi took almost half a day, but it ended up being totally worth it. For the night we stayed in Shibu Onsen (渋温泉) a historic hot spring town in the area. We opted for a family-style ryokan and the owner was lovely, despite a communication barrier that meant I had to bust out my translation skills! The town isn’t exactly accessible from the local train station either, so he was kind enough to drive us around.
When I first saw this building, I instantly thought it looked like something straight out of Spirited Away. Little did I know, this exact ryokan was apparently one of Hayao Miyazaki’s inspirations when he created the film! How cool is that?
Shibu Onsen is famous for its nine natural hot springs, which you gain access to when you stay at ryokans in the area. Apparently each onsen has a different healing property, and bathing in all nine is supposed to bring good luck.
While there wasn’t enough time to try them all, I did bathe in a few natural hot springs, along with the private one at our ryokan. Soaking in the onsen is always relaxing, but it really hits differently when the weather’s cold outside! Not to mention, the peace and quiet was exactly what I needed after travelling nonstop for two weeks.
The next morning we woke up to snow outside our window, and I honestly felt like a kid on Christmas morning. The streets already looked magical when we explored the night before, but underneath a fresh layer of snow? The same old buildings suddenly took on a whole new life. The snowfall only started getting stronger, and I really felt like I’d stepped into a winter wonderland! The feeling of excitement was short lived, though. Before long I got sick of the cold, and hurried back to the warmth of the ryokan haha.
Anyway, on to the highlight of our trip – visiting the Japanese macaques, aka snow monkeys! Honestly, getting there was a journey in itself. Before reaching Jigokudani Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑), you actually have to complete a small hike up the mountain. And with all the ice forming on the ground, getting up and down the slopes was no easy feat.
Despite the struggle, I loved every second of the climb. Snow is something we rarely get in Australia, so seeing it is always a novelty for me. And with the pine trees towering over our heads, it honestly looked like something out of a fairytale book. We got there quite early too, so the forest was eerily quiet besides the snow shifting underneath our feet. It was just pure bliss.
Believe it or not, the snow monkeys are wild and come to the hot spring on their own accord. Apparently the Japanese macaques are a particularly intelligent species of monkeys, and have even been observed washing their own food! They seemed to be quite accustomed to humans too, so it was amazing to be able to see them from such a close distance. Not to mention, they were a lot cuter than I initially expected! Snow falling all around us was really the cherry on top of an amazing experience. Who knew that monkeys enjoyed the onsen just as much as humans do?
After many more pairs of feet had been treading through the snow, the road back down felt even more slippery. Trust me when I say that you need to proceed with caution! Walking too fast can cause you to slip and fall on your butt, just like I did. It hurt like hell, and sometimes I can still feel the ghost of that bruise haha.
Heading back to Tokyo, the difference couldn’t have been more obvious. After all, there are so many more people, more noises and more sights to be seen around the city. But after travelling around Japan so much, there’s just something charming about the countryside that I can’t help but adore. Whether it’s Yamanouchi or another onsen town, I can’t wait to be back again one day.