In my own insomniac ways, I think I’ve slept off most of my residual travel weariness. It helps that George is working nights, so that instead of sharing whatever odd sleeping arrangement we found ourselves in over the past few months - a humid mosquito net-draped mattress, thin mats in a Buddhist monastery, a cramped bed in a tiny Tokyo hotel room - I’ve had only to share our queen-sized bed with an overlarge feline.
The other morning, I awoke from a deep sleep to not just bedhead, but also to disheveled eyebrows. It felt good, and it also felt like I needed to attend to some overdue personal grooming. Meanwhile, George is back at his nocturnal routine: commandeering all of our chip clips to hang a heavy animal-print blanket from the bedroom window for an ingenious - if hideous - blackout curtain, and pounding ‘breakfast’ bowls of yogurt and granola at all hours of day and night.
There’s so much I could say about Japan, starting with how I’d like to eat okonomiyaki every day and move to Kyoto. That somehow, in a country that arguably underestimates the usefulness of street addresses, we found our way to a surprising number of hidden spots and holes in the wall. How George became a connoisseur of sweet red bean desserts. That I fulfilled a childhood dream and witnessed Japanese macaques in their natural habitat - hot springs!
Those who follow me on Instagram likely saw my excited post of a not-impressed macaque sitting on the side of a steamy, naturally occurring hot spring. Over two decades earlier, I’d seen photos of the Japanese macaques in an issue of National Geographic, and since then making the journey to see them has lingered near the top of my bucket list.
A visit to the small town of Yudanaka, north of Nagano, was convenient thanks to the JR rail pass we’d purchased before leaving in September. As we sped northeast through the countryside, the temperature noticeably dropped. Persimmon and apple trees dotted the landscape, vistas of rice paddies and vineyards and rolling green hills interrupted by the bright orange of persimmons ripening on barren branches, and by flamingly red maple leaves.
We stayed in a family-run inn, or ryokan, just a 40-minute walk from the macaques’ home in Joshinetsu Kogen National Park. Run by an elderly couple who spoke no English, the inn was cozy if dated. We settled in, enjoying the inn’s natural hot spring for the majority of the afternoon. In no time we made our outsider status known, breaking social decorum by wearing kimono jackets intended for the opposite sex, and shuffling into our room in the slippers provided by the inn rather than leaving the slip-ons in front of our door.
That night, we ventured to one of the few restaurants in the area for nabe, a hearty Japanese hotpot and a bedrock of the diet of sumo wrestlers. No English was spoken, but a creatively translated paragraph on the menu noted that a regular diet of nabe, often made with horse meat, is notoriously calorie-dense and helps sumo wrestlers gain weight. Perfect, I thought. If there’s something I always look for in my meals, it’s horse meat AND extra calories.
When a bubbling pot of vegetables and noodles and mystery protein arrived, we resigned ourselves to the disheartening fact that we were tucking in to a bowl of horse meat. Just a table away, a group of Japanese diners were attacking a plate of horse (steak? sauté?) with gusto, so the equine assumption wasn’t a stretch. Halfway in, though, we finally reconciled the ferrous taste of the meat with its provenance: chicken livers, lots of them! I’m not sure if this was better or worse than horse meat. Properly fortified, we walked the two minutes back to the inn. I could hardly sleep, such was my anticipation of the hot tubbing primates. This is only partly a joke.
To reach the hot springs the next morning, we walked about a mile through early-morning mist in the forest after one of the inn owners dropped us off at the trailhead in his minivan. There were some fantastically helpful signs, as shown below. Little trails forked off into denser forest, leading to onsen (hot springs) visited mostly by humans. We paid the equivalent of about $5 each to access the onset populated by the macaques, a pittance for the steamy revelry that awaited us.
As expected, the macaques were adorable and animated and completely at home in the hot springs. They spend a lot of their time grooming one another, a symbiotic behavior rendered especially entertaining when undertaken in the water. We can gloss over the fact that there was no snow, but it did make me wonder if, instead of drinking the hot spring water as they were the day we visited, they sip snow during the winter.
Some of the macaques were alarmingly habituated to humans. One even stepped on George’s foot! Although we visited on a Saturday, there were fewer tourists then we would have expected. We lingered for at least an hour, laughing at the macaques’ power struggles at play in hot spring supremacy, random aggressive sexual advances, and loud calls. I flashed back to third grade, when our teacher would let us sit cross-legged in long lines on the floor, giving each other back rubs. While this surely wouldn’t be allowed in today’s classrooms (am I really that old?), the macaques had the technique down, substituting grooming for massages.
We spent the rest of the day laughing about the macaques’ antics, sampling perfect apples from a little farmers’ market, and trying to stay warm by downing hot cups of green tea. Although I think doing so violates many unofficial rules of travel, if we make a return trip to Japan I’ll likely insist on a stop to visit the macaques again!