Nagano: See The Snow Monkeys
Although the brand Bathing Ape may be one of the lamest things on earth, the actual bathing apes in Yudanaka Japan are one of the coolest things you will ever see. But it’s not just a distant dream that you have to tear out of the pages of National Geographic and stick on your wall: they’re actually super easy to get to and well worth the navigation of dodgy trains and mountain paths. Don’t do a tour – not only is it embarrassing and unnecessary, but it completely invalidates the whole point of hobo travel, which is winging it everywhere for as little money as possible.
Yudanaka itself doesn’t have all that much to offer if your interests extend beyond eating steaming bowls udon soup at roadside cafes, so stay in the nearby town of Nagano. I couldn’t recommend the 1166 Backpackers Hostel more highly. Owned by an absolute babe of a woman called Orie, 1166 is a cheap guesthouse offering both bunk bed and tatami-style accommodation. There’s a fully-equipped Japanese kitchen, and last time we were there we were lucky enough to be given a drunken tempura cooking lesson by an eccentric man-friend of Orie’s who was a former Olympic chef.
To get from Nagano to Yudanaka you can take either a bus or a train depending on your faith in public transport. Neither run all that frequently, so look up the timetables beforehand. NagaDen Bus service runs about eight buses each day from the east exit at Nagano Train Station up to the Shiga Kogen ski fields. You disembark at the last stop – Kanbayashi Onsen Guchi. Trains run from Nagano station to Yudanaka on the Nagano Dentecu line, meaning your JR Pass sadly doesn’t work, but they come more often than the buses. This line doesn’t actually operate from the main station, but the subway station on the street opposite the train station’s Zenkoji exit.
The stingier option is to pay 1130 yen for about an hour and fifteen minutes on a local train, or you can upgrade to an express train for an extra 100 yen, which will knock half an hour off your journey time. Although the local trains can best be described as “vintage”, they’re really not that bad, and both offer amazing views of the Japanese countryside. Upon arrival at Yudaka station, if you’re a paranoid wanker you can jump on the Holiday Shuttle for 800 yen, but this usually requires pre-booking. Alternatively, just get a local bus for 200 yen to to the Kanbayashi trailhead, which takes around 10 minutes.
From wherever you get off the bus it’s a clearly-signed 30 minute walk to Jigokudani Monkey Park through a lush cedar forest filled with cool fallen leaves you can toss in the air for sick photos. The monkeys are at the very end, just maxing and relaxing in the hot springs without a care in the world. They’re so fucking chilled it’s not funny – you can get right up in their grill to take photos and admire their monkey-wisdom and they don’t even bat an eyelid. It’s not as el naturale as you may think: there are ropes for the monkeys to play on and the springs are totally man-made, but they’re fed through natural underground springs and the monkeys are wild.
Once you’ve finished being a wildlife photographer and making connections with our ancient relatives, you need to hike back down to the car park and figure out how to get back to the station. This can be a bit tricky, because buses don’t always leave from the same place they dropped you off. However, given that Japanese people are so friendly, a simple mime or interpretive dance to any local will always be fruitful, or you can just walk to the main road and flag a bus down.