Some time ago Mark saw pictures of snow monkeys in Japan and he needed to see them in person. Well, the easiest place to do so is a bit outside of Nagano, home of the 1998 Winter Olympics, so off we went. We stayed in the little town of Obuse, a 30-minute ride on a commuter rail kind of thing outside of Nagano, which was a mistake. It’s supposed to be this cute little tourist town but we found it just really dull. In fact, given the dearth of restaurants in Obuse we ended up taking the train into Nagano every night for dinner. Obuse was pretty, our hotel was beautiful, and it was a good place for early morning runs, but otherwise it was not much to write home about.
A quick word about where we are. This area of central Honshu is known as the Japanese Alps, about two-and-a-half hours west of Tokyo by bullet train. Now, I’ve been to the Alps, and while these are nice mountains, often beautiful mountains, I’m not convinced they’re exactly Alpine. Getting here was fun, though; we just love the Japanese bullet trains. Wonderfully comfortable, easy, and punctual. You could probably quite literally set your watch by their arrival and departure times (if people still have to set watches in this era of Apple Watches…). Just sit back, relax, read, get up and walk around, and suddenly you’re on the other side of Japan.
Now, back to the monkeys. In their natural habitat you’ll only find monkeys in the tropics or subtropics, except in Japan. The Japanese macaque is the only non-human primate in the world that lives in a cold climate, and as the name suggests they’re only found in Japan. A 1992 documentary, Baraka, made the snow monkeys in this part of Japan famous by showing them bathing in hot springs surrounded by snow. Cute pictures and thus a tourist industry was born.From Obuse the train out of Nagano continues to the town of Yudanaka, where you catch a bus that leaves you off perhaps a mile or two from the hot springs. At this point you’re high enough in elevation that in early April there’s still lots of snow, but it’s a warm spring day so the walk was beautiful. Eventually you get there … and there they are, a bunch of monkeys hanging out in the snow, jumping in and out of the hot springs, picking nits from each other, taking pictures of the tourists and all that. They were cute and it’s crazy watching them play in the snow and all that.
At the same time, it’s definitely kind of fake. These are monkeys that are seriously accustomed to hundreds and hundreds of tourists. Lonely Planet says the monkeys are “lured from their natural habitat … with food.” And the hot spring isn’t natural; it’s built there for the monkeys. So yeah, definitely not the most authentic naturalist experience you’ll ever have but still cute. My favorite part was the walk through the forest up to the park, but either way it was a pleasant little day trip.
Otherwise we spent our time in Obuse … going into Nagano. The highlight of the city is the Zenkō-ji Buddhist temple, founded in the 7th century and home of Japan’s oldest Buddhist treasures. One statue, said to have arrived in Japan from Korea in 552, is kept in storage here. As a “hidden Buddha,” it is not shown to anyone, including the chief priests or even the emperor himself. According again to Lonely Planet, not even the last 37 emperors have seen the statue. One wonders what’s really in there.
One piece of good news from Obuse/Nagano was that there were very few cherry blossoms. Why is that good news? I read just after leaving Tokyo that officials there had determined that our last day was the cherry blossom peak; from that point it would be all down hill. We were afraid that maybe we weren’t going to see many more as we continue traveling around Japan for a couple more weeks. Not to worry, though, here on the western part of Honshu they haven’t even started yet.
Now for the grim news from home. I was just ready to start writing this a couple days ago, had all the pictures loaded and everything, when we learned that my little ten-year-old great-nephew – my brother’s grandson – has had a relapse of his cancer. He was diagnosed back in October 2015 with a rare and usually fatal case of neuroblastoma, a nerve cancer that typically attacks children. After nearly two years of brutal treatment he was found to be cancer free last July, just days after we buried my Dad. As one of my friends who’s a bit more religious than I am (that’s a low bar) put it, “It’s as though your Dad went to heaven and said ‘OK, you got me. Let the kid go.'” It was truly a gift that we had something to celebrate that week.
Well, the good news didn’t last. Earlier this week they went in for his quarterly checkup only to find that at least two tumors have returned. And this time there is no treatment and no hope of survival. It’s a body blow; things like this aren’t supposed to happen to little kids. And yes, it makes it a little tough to write about how great these travels are knowing what my brother and his family are going through.
So there you have it, snow monkeys and family tragedies. I guess that’s life in a nutshell sometimes.