The Nagano snow monkeys are so world famous, that they barely even need an introduction. Long before I ever visited Japan, I would read articles in National Geographic about these curious creatures soaking in the hot springs while surrounded by snow. In fact, I was so used to hearing about them that it wasn’t the monkeys that interested me as much as the concept of a hot spring, and being surrounded by snow, at that. (Hailing from Chicago, that was not something you see every day. Well, besides the snow, of course.)
The monkeys live in the mountains, and famously come down to the hot springs to warm up in the cold weather. The hot springs, called onsen in Japanese, are pools of naturally heated water produced by the geothermal activity the country is famous for. Over the centuries, the Japanese turned these into bath houses and resorts, many of them boasting unique mineral properties that soothe various physical ailments.
There is an ideal onsen fantasy that Japanese love to dream about while discussing the thought of such a trip. They dream of sitting in an outdoor onsen (called a rotenburo), steam rising from the water into the crisp air. The onsen is surrounded by snow in the dead of winter, and a clear black night sky rises endlessly above them. Since they’re usually dreaming of the mountains, there are stars everywhere. There in the hot water beside them, floating in the wooden bucket called an oke, is a porcelain bottle of sake and a few little cups, wrapped in a wet towel with ice. Ah. Now that’s an onsen.
That’s precisely what Nagano offers, in addition to the monkeys. Although the monkeys don’t partake in the sake part of that fantasy, you can share the water with these marvelous animals who are more than accustomed to visitors. They tend to be polite, and as long as you don’t splash or approach them, they won’t bother you. This is also a great opportunity to see monkey society in action – there’s a senpai-kohai hierarchical system between them, and a set of manners that can be observed while parents teach their young the difference between right and wrong.
The winter is upon us, so why not plan a trip to Nagano for some time early in the year when the snow is at its finest? You know who’ll be waiting for you. And bring your own sake.