When a Japanese friend learned that I was planning a winter trip to see the snow monkeys north of Nagano, she told me she had always wanted to see the Hokusai museum in nearby Obuse, so, although she was not fond of cold weather, she agreed to accompany me for a few days. It was February of 2010, and the night before we were to leave, Tokyo had its only significant snowfall of the season. By morning about three or four inches graced the roofs, bushes, and streets outside my window. My friend called. Apparently outlying areas had heavier snow and the highway bus we were planning to take had been cancelled. In addition, many trains were delayed or stopped, and downed trees caused road obstructions. Our local line was running, so we connected to the Shinkansen, bullet train, more expensive but much faster, and sped north to the mountains.
Switching trains at Nagano, we stopped for a soba lunch, and then detoured to see the grand Zenkō-ji Buddhist Temple. Handmade straw sandals hung at the entrance, brought as offerings to the gods. Hoping for good luck, visitors had rubbed the statue of Binzuru, a follower of Buddha, so that it shone in places. Many pilgrims stumbled through a completely dark underground passage, groping along the walls for a hidden key of enlightenment. Although my friend claimed not to be a believer, she threw the obligatory coin into the box at the steps of the temple, rang the bell, and clapped, observing the ritual prayer.
“You never know,” she said with a sly smile.
The celebrated artist of the Edo period, Katsushika Hokusai created ukiyo-e, woodblock prints. His depictions of huge foamy blue waves tossing wooden boats, and of the dramatic, solitary Mount Fuji, serene or stormy, floating over villages, are recognized around the world. An extensive collection of originals were housed at the Hokusai Museum in Obuse, along with his paintings, scrolls, and sketches. We trudged through blowing snow to see his fiery orange phoenix on the ceiling at the Gansho-in Temple, painted while Hokusai was in his eighties.
Hokusai’s patron in Obuse owned a sake factory, which now houses the museum; a smaller brewery and restaurant run by the same family could now be found on the main road. We sat at the counter to watch blue-robed young men preparing the food, chopping quickly and precisely with big sharp knives and steaming rice over an old stone oven. Three different kinds of sake, including a thick, milky wine similar to Korean makgeolli, were brought to us to sample, each one better than the last.
Under the town of Yudanaka, which clung to a steep mountainside, the earth seemed to be smoldering, dotted with steaming hot springs. Our hotel had an underground passageway to several natural spas, so we could wear the robe-like yukata and slippers supplied in our room without stepping outside. As usual in Japan, men and women bathed separately, in the nude. Both before dinner and after, we soaked in hot pools in rock basins, with fresh water dribbling down rock walls, pouring in from the side, bubbling up from the bottom.
My friend declined to join me on my morning trek to see Jigokudani Yaen-koen, Hell’s Valley Monkey Park, one of the most famous attractions in all of Japan, preferring to relax in the hotel. She did not want to hike on the snowy trail. This was truly inconceivable to me; I could hardly contain my excitement! To each her own. I just hoped there would be a few monkeys around on this slightly warmer morning to make the journey worthwhile.
After a thirty-minute walk from the trailhead on a snow-packed path through dense forest to a cluster of old wooden buildings along a river, I was thrilled to encounter my first Macaque monkey, a large reddish-brown male strolling by me without a glance. The sign pointed up steep stairs to the park entrance. The Monkey Park follows the river up to a steamy natural pool.
Suddenly monkeys were everywhere: playful youngsters rolling and frolicking in the snow, chasing each other up the hillside, bouncing off rocks, my camera bag, and even my head. They were hanging off signs, lone monkeys digging in the snow for morsels of food, sitting on rocks in the river, mothers nursing babies. Across a rickety bridge, pensive-looking monkeys lounged in the pond, heads with disheveled hair floating above the surface, lost in meditation, reaching down now and then to pick up things to eat from below the surface. These wild creatures ignored the human gawkers, oblivious to the cameras, and avoided eye contact, as if we were just other grazing animals in the valley. How enchanting to be able to share their remote habitat, if only for an hour or so.
This piece is an excerpt from my book, Go Wherever You Want (working title).
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