The snow was coming down fast and heavy. As I watched the Jigokudani snow monkeys enter and exit their private outdoor onsen, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.

If it had been possible to be with my family that Christmas, I would have been there. As I could not go to them, and they could not come to me in Japan, the healthiest way to avoid self pity was to plan something completely unfamiliar. Monkeys in a tropical climate? That was to be expected. Watching the only monkeys in the world capable of surviving these harsh temperatures frolic in their private onsen as the snow swirled around them?

Now that was magical.

Christmas Morning in Nagano

I awoke that Christmas morning and eagerly looked out the window.

Still no snow.

Nagano, which had hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, is renowned for the caliber of its snow. My friends had raved about how great the skiing and snowboarding was. When I had arrived at Nagano Dec. 23, ai had been a little disappointed that the snow on the city streets from a few days earlier had melted. However, the pearly gray sky outside suggested that it might snow after all.

I left for a morning walk to Zenkoji Temple. En route, I passed by a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Through the locked glass doors I could see staff busily making preparations.

Who would have thought Kentucky Fried Chicken was so closely associated with Christmas in Japan? It might have been because the good Colonel Sanders had a white beard, or because the red and white combo on the KFC logo reminded them of Santa Claus. In any case, there had been some brilliant marketing – one had to place an order weeks in advance if they hoped to secure a Christmas bucket.

Zenkoji Temple: Searching for the Key to Paradise

Zenkoji Temple is one of the most important temples in Japan. It was around this temple, built in 642, that Nagano developed. It was an easy twenty-five minute walk from the hotel. The town was quiet, the storekeepers only beginning to open their shops.

It might sound odd or ironic to visit such a significant Buddhist temple on Christmas day. And yet, what a friendly and approachable place! This temple deserved its reputation for welcoming visitors of any faith.

There was a line of six large Jizo in bibs, representing the six realms: hell, starvation, beasts, carnage, human beings, and heavenly beings. Adjacent to these six Jizo was an enormous “wet” Jizo to protect the temple from fire. I placed incense in a large burner and followed guidance to waft the smoke over me to protect my health.

I was attracted by the rhythmic pounding of drums and chanting and followed the sound to a building. It seemed rude to go inside, and so I stood at the door frame watching as the Buddhist priest lit incense. Every gesture was controlled, every movement executed with great precision. The sound of monotonous chants and the deeper thudding of drums was hypnotic.

In the Main Hall I was directed to remove my boots and given a clear plastic bag with which to carry them. Through my socks, I could feel the cold tatami mats. Wandering the interior, I followed the designated route and came across an entrance with stairs leading down. A posted sign in English read:

While groping in darkness for the key to paradise, free from worldly thoughts – engage in self-reflection and spiritual awakening.

Another nearby sign read:

Please do not use flashlights or phone while in pitch-dark tunnel.

Not understanding what to expect, I descended the stairs and into a darkness so complete I was startled. I hugged the sides of the tunnel, fingers probing the sides, toes slowly inching forward. What felt like several minutes passed as I made little progress. Suddenly, there was a solitary light, no bigger than a flicker, from the floor. Beyond feeling a sudden wild joy, I suddenly realized that the tunnel was not in a straight line: to see the light required moving around a curve.

I have read that the underground walk takes roughly five minutes. It feels much longer. After climbing the stairs back into the light I was welcomed by the sight of six hand sanitizers. My first order of business was to open the pamphlet I had neglected to read.

In doing so, I learned the key to paradise was reputed to be inside the tunnel. One touch of the key to paradise was enough to ensure eternal salvation. I had done plenty of wall groping moving through the tunnel. Had I touched it? 

There was no way of knowing. Turn on a light, bring a light, and you immediately reveal your distrust.

I am curious to know how the experience changes when there are more worshippers, as I presume there must be under normal conditions. Does it become more sacred, knowing that there are others also lost and trying to find their way out? Does it become more awkward as you account for the movement of others, and comical as you stumble into other people?

I was (I think) the only person in the tunnel. As such, the keen awareness that I was alone was disconcerting and humbling. There is something quite spiritual of forcing yourself to continue in an uncomfortable dark. Journeying through there was also a necessary reminder of how comforting the tiniest flicker of light can bring.

Rotating the Sacred Scriptures

I had not actually planned on going inside the Kyozo, the scripture house built in 1759 that contains the sacred sutras. I was so busy trying to decipher the sign outside the Kyozo that I reckoned if I could not understand the words, it was doubtful I would properly appreciate what was inside. Here’s the sign I was struggling over:

Here the octagonal rotating shelf stores a complete collection of Buddhist sutras. By revolving the sutra storage, it is believed prayers obtain a merit equivalent to reading the complete sutras.

The 2.95 meter, octagonal shaped structure housed 6771 books of obaku tetsugan, complete Buddhist scriptures.

It was the “revolving” portion I did not understand. Were the sutras were rotated in and out, like a museum exhibit or lending library?

Fortunately, the man inside the Kyozo came outside.

“Come in!” he encouraged in English. “Where are you from?”

“Florida, but I live in Yokosuka right now.”

“Inside is the sutras. One rotation gives you as much virtue as if you read them all.”

“Honto ne?” I was enthusiastic. ”That’s awesome.”

He nodded earnestly. “You must come inside.”

I was curious as to this philosophy on learning, which seemed very unlike a Japanese work ethic that placed a premium on discipline, and patience. This pitch, learning through osmosis in less than a minute, seemed perfect for an American clientele. 

I bought a ticket, still not understanding the concept of rotation. I though I would walk around the octagonal structure.

Instead, he directed me behind a protruding spoke. It was then I understood that the rotation was meant literally – the structure that contained the sutras was meant to be pushed. I planted my feet, placed my shoulder against the spoke, and heaved. Nothing moved.

I thought wryly that it was an impossible quest to try and move a five ton structure, tantamount to pulling a sword from a stone. 

“Are you pushing?” His voice was friendly, the tone of his voice bright and playful.

“Hai,” I grunted. ”So desu.”

A cheerful: “I will help you.”

He took a position at a spoke behind me. By some trick or extraordinary technique, the structure very slowly started moving and we completed a full rotation. I felt a moment of triumph.

I also had so many questions, but decided not to ask out of fear it would be seen as impudent or disrespectful. Was this virtue earned during the rotation of the sutras good for all eternity? Or was it like a vaccine, with periodic boosters/refreshers?

Journey to see the Jigokudani Snow Monkeys

Christmas morning breakfast after the temple consisted of a hot local dumpling, oyaki, of shinshu beef and nozawana.

I caught a train to Yudanaka station. The journey showcased the agricultural beauty of the land, and I smiled at the vineyards: the grape vines were protected from the cold by straw. The way the straw was drapes around the vines made it appear like each plant was wearing a hula skirt.

To my delight, it started to flurry.

By the time the train reached Yudanaka it was snowing heavily. There were no turnstiles – passengers dropped tickets in basket held by station official. Outside, I purchased a ¥310 bus ticket to the highest accessible point of the Yudanaka park. The bus to the base of the park was not scheduled to leave for another fifty minutes, so I went to the conbini and bought a hot croquette.

This area was known for being an onsen town. There were several famous onsens to treat a variety of ailments. Guests staying at ryokans could visit the nine public bathhouses, each of which treated a different condition. I resolved to go one day. In the meantime, I took advantage of the free public foot bath directly behind the train station, sheltered from the elements by a clear plastic tent.

I entered the tent, removed my boots and two layers of heavy socks, and slid my feet into the footpath. The temperature of the natural hot springs water felt wonderful.

Outside, small children engaged in a traditional winter past time and erected very detailed miniature snowmen. The bus arrived, and full of excitement, we boarded the bus.

I like that the park lies in a setting inaccessible by car. The bus was only permitted so far; the rest of the way involved a 25-45 minute icy trek through the forest. There was a fairytale-like beauty to woods full of Japanese cedar and oak. Signs posted along the route educated guests with facts about the snow monkeys. Interspersed with these signs were clever advertisements, mostly from local restaurants.

For human beings, Rausu-an. Handmade genuine buckwheat soba awaits you! Be a happy Human after watching happy Monkeys.

The forest eventually opened to reveal a few houses, a bridge, and the Shibu no Jigkudani geyser, spewing a continuous stream of mineral-rich water at 90 degrees celsius. The name Jigokudani literally means “hell valley”, which seems an incongruous name for a place so lovely and serene. The word “hell” was meant very loosely and referred to the hot steam. Interestingly, there were multiple “hells” throughout Japan. (I can personally attest that the three I have been to have been delightful.)

Across the bridge stood the historic Korakukan inn. It was said that the Korakukan’s riverside baths had provided the inspiration to create the snow monkey protected area —young monkeys had often been found playing and joining surprised human guests at their onsen,. Consequently, officials decided to entice monkeys away from human onsens and to a super exclusive monkey-only onsen of their very own.

The Snow Monkey Park, at the base of Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, opened in 1964.

Thus, two signs hung at the entrance to the wooden bridge to Korakukan, with arrows pointing species in the correct direction. An onsen for humans; an onsen for monkeys.

I paid the ¥800 ticket and entered the park.

The Japanese macaque, aka snow monkey, is the “world’s northernmost non-human wild primate”, and the only species of monkey capable of surviving extreme winter temperatures.

The man-made outdoor onsen that the snow monkeys bathed in had been so artfully constructed as to blend in completely with the natural beauty surrounding it. Snow monkeys foraging for food pawed through the snow as if building a snowman. Younger monkeys energetically cannon-balled into the springs, swam underwater, or cuddled in groups off to the side. Older monkeys groomed each other or simply sat in the bath motionless.

There was no glass barrier separating human from monkey. The snow monkeys roamed the area freely. Indeed, the biggest threat seemed to be from photographers looking so deeply through their lenses that they would narrowly miss the snow monkey striding inches from their feet.

A park employee blew sharply on his whistle, and every head turned to see what the offense had been: a woman had traveled too far up the rocks to photograph a monkey.

It seemed an idyllic wildness, the Japanese macaques utterly unfazed by our presence. None approached looking for food. None made any attempt to interact with us. Seeing them so close added to the feeling of coziness and intimacy, that perhaps what we were seeing was truly real.

It was entertaining watching snow monkey social dynamics. While the scene was generally one of calm as they carefully groomed each other and alternated between trips to the snow and hot springs, there would occasionally be a disturbance when some unspoken rule was broken. More than one monkey was chased out by a more dominant monkey.

I stayed so long I literally could not feel my fingers. It was with deep regret that I finally left and made my way back through the woods.

Much to my disappointment, the Rausu-an restaurant was closed.

Rather than take the train back, I decided to purchase a direct bus ticket to Nagano. Christmas dinner consisted of a hot bowl of soba noodles with egg outside the train station. 

Inspired by the snow monkeys, I took a hot bath back at hotel. It had been a white Christmas after all. There had been a friendly place to pray at, snow, someone to give me a good push when I needed it, warmth and kindness at exactly the right time. I was so lucky.

What a wonderful Christmas day.

By Katie

Konnichiwa! Thank you so much for visiting. 😊 I am super fortunate to be living in gorgeous Japan. I have always loved traveling, and my legs are my primary means of transportation. It's a beautiful world, and I'm eager to explore it…one step at a time.

2 thoughts on “Christmas Day – Nagano and the Jigokudani Snow Monkeys”
  1. This isn’t the Japan in guidebooks. This is the Japan that a curious observant person who loves and respects the Japanese country and people shares with those that are unable to be there in person. Excelllent images! Katie appreciates the quirks of translation and laughs at her miscommunications, too. I look forward to more of her SeaLegAdventure tales.

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