We heard that Japan was the only place in the world where you can see monkeys bathing in hot springs so of course we had to go see it for ourselves. We headed from Tokyo Station to Nagano in less than two hours on Japan’s super fast Shinkansen train! After exiting the train station we had to look around a bit to find the correct bus – in fact we were about to give up and take another train/bus combination when we saw signs for the ‘Snow Monkey Bus.’ After purchasing a bus/park combo ticket we boarded and headed toward the monkeys! The ride was about 30 minutes long but we got to see beautiful hay fields, majestic mountains and even the Olympic ice-skating rink – yup you might remember that 1998 Winter Olympic location.
When the bus dropped us off in front of a Roman Museum we were a little confused but then we saw a small sign pointing us in the right direction and started a 15-minute hike up a hill to the entrance of the park. The monkeys are nestled within Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park and our 15-minute hill was just the start of our hike, but once within the park it was a much more enjoyable hike. There was a canopy of trees overhead, a bubbling creek beside the trail, and a vibrant river below in the Yokoyu River Valley. There were also fascinating signs every so often letting you know how far you had left to go and facts about the monkeys.
After about a mile hike in the forest we reached a small village where there are Ryokans (traditional Japanese hotels) with hot spring pools from the same hot springs the monkeys enjoy. We started to see a few monkeys along the bridge to the village and proceeded up a hill to an area to lock anything you don’t want the monkeys to have. After securing our possessions we made our way to the hot spring river and pool that the monkeys have claimed.
The area the monkeys live in is actually buried in snow for about 1/3 of the year and one of the ways they endure this harsh environment is by taking respite in the warm hot springs. Although it was cool the day we went apparently it wasn’t cold enough because we didn’t get to see any monkeys bath in the water. We did however get to see lots of them drink the water and play around and chase each other. We also saw tons of baby monkeys and probably got the closest we’ve been to any monkeys (they are very docile since it is strictly forbidden to feed them). We still have a chance to see them in the water since there is actually a live camera on the bath they use and you can check it out by Googling ‘Snow Monkey Live Cam.’
Although we probably could have spent all day looking at the monkeys we had to head back to Tokyo. Once back at our hotel we had about 30 minutes to clean up and head to Shinjuku famous Robot Show. The area of Shinjuku is lit up like Times Square and was incredibly busy – we had to shove our way across the street to get to the show on time!
Once in the Robot Show building they had us watch a pre-show while having drinks. It was fairly entertaining with a Robot band and a female singer belting out every Disney song. After about 30 minutes they had us head downstairs and we were actually surprised how small the stage was but they packed us all in and gave us the oddest safety briefing I’ve ever been a part of – complete with the crowd ducking for a fake airplane as it passed by.
Although I had heard the food wasn’t good I went ahead and ordered the Bento Box because it was only $10 (and hey how bad could it be?) – well it wasn’t worth the $10. Luckily we also got a bucket of popcorn for dinner! And then suddenly the show started. For about the first 20 minutes I was like OMG why am I here? There were giant drums and unicorns and I thought this must be what it is like to be on drugs.
People say it is an assault on your senses. The best way I can describe it is as The Lego Movie in REAL life. The next 40 minutes were A LOT cooler and definitely worth it finally there were cool looking robots and story plot I could get behind.
The last 20 minutes were just kind of a way to recognize the performers and round out the show. Half of the fun of the experience was interacting with the other crowd members and being like ‘what just happened….’
After the show we decided to walk around the Shinjuku area, which is kind of the Red Light district of Japan. Drew walked away from me and was quickly accosted by numerous establishments looking to enhance his evening. As soon as I walked up to him though they all apologized and walked away – kind of funny. Shinjuku is also famous for the ‘Love Hotels’ where you can pay for a ‘Rest’ or a ‘Stay’ with 2 different prices.
We absolutely HAD to go by Hotel Gracery and see the massive Godzilla attacking the building. Although that’s where I learned that Andrew has never seen a Godzilla movie!!!! I know crazy right?! So I guess I know what he’s going to be doing with his time when we get back home…
Before we left Shinjuku we had to take a walk down the famous ‘Piss Alley’ or if you are being polite ‘Memory Lane’ and as it’s name describes most people enjoy a few too many adult beverages there. Since we had a long day and early morning the next day we didn’t imbibe but it was still neat to see the narrow street, the lanterns and all the meat grilling on sticks.
On our last day in Tokyo we did an organized day trip out to Mount Fuji. On the bus out from Tokyo to Mount Fuji we actually passed the Japanese train development and testing center which is where the fastest train in the world is finishing development. Our only stop on Mount Fuji was at the famous 5th station. Our tour guide informed us that climbing season for the mountain ended on September 10th so this was the furthest we could go. At the 5th station there is Shinto Shrine that is said to enshrine the goddess of immortality. We visited but it was hard because there were crowds of people.
At the 5th station we also tried the Mount Fuji Melon Cake and although it looked really cool it wasn’t exactly my favorite. We also got some bells that were blessed in the famous shrine we visited. Unfortunately the day we visited was extremely cloudy so we didn’t get great views of the mountain. Drew was lucky enough to climb to the observation deck and get a couple of photos before the clouds rolled all the way in!
Our next stop was lunch and it was a traditional Japanese lunch complete with sashimi and a vegetable Udon noodle hot pot – I’ve been having the sniffles for a while now so I really appreciated the hot pot. We also had a really lovely lake view and people were out enjoying the lake in these cute little swan boats!
After lunch we headed to Lake Ashi, which is actually a volcanic crater! We got to take a cruise on the lake before arriving at Mount Komagatake Rope Way, which we would call a gondola. On the lake we saw a small but beautiful Shinto Shrin Torii Gate right before we arrived at our destination. We took the aerial tram up the mountain and were really hoping we would breach the clouds and get a view of mount Fuji but unfortunately that did not happen.
When we arrived at the top of the mountain the clouds were so thick you could barely see a couple of feet in front of you. I thought it was kind of cool – it felt like you were walking in the clouds. Drew on the other hand was not amused and he waited for 20 minutes for the wind to blow the clouds away to get a good photo. There was another Shinto Shrine at the mountaintop and it was empty when we entered so I took the time to pray and say thank you for this absolutely amazing and once in a lifetime trip!
On the gondola ride down we got to see other stops along the lake – there’s even a beautiful golf course. And somewhere on the horizon we were told is the Pacific Ocean – it made me think of home. The drive home was long and made us feel that we got the real Tokyo traffic experience. When we finally arrived back at the hotel we knew we could see and do so much more with more time in Tokyo but were also happy with what we accomplished with the time we had.