Today was a day I have been waiting for my whole life (well most of it anyway) and in fact, it was the reason I chose the tour I am on as it visited this area. It started with a 50 minute train journey which took us through more picturesque rural villages with snowed capped mountains behind them to Nagano, the capital and largest city of Nagano prefecture. The area, also known as the “roof of Japan” was the home of the 1998 Winter Olympics and they are still very proud of this.
From the station we jumped on a minibus for a one hour drive in to Jigokundai Monkey Park where the famous Snow Monkeys of Japan live. As early as 1964 the wild Japanese Macaques were observed soaking in the natural hot springs and the park was established where visitors could see the monkeys without cages or fences. They feed the monkeys daily to keep them in the area and to stop them pillaging neighbouring farms, a habit that was getting them killed.
After a beautiful 1.6 km walk through the quiet forest and along the Yokoyu River into the geothermic area of “Hells Valley” (the meaning of Jigokundai) we arrived at the man made onsen (or hot pool) where the monkeys like to hang out. There was a troop of around 20 or 30 monkeys hanging around and even though it was not particularly cold, a few of them jumped in for a soak.
Most kept their heads above the water, whilst one was keen to swim around underwater, apparently looking for some kind of water weed that it was eating. As well as the water dwellers, there were babies playing all around the place and others just chilling out in the sun and grooming each other, all of them completely ignoring us and the handful of other visitors.
I was prepared to be disappointed by the park as I was so excited about seeing the monkeys, but thankfully I wasn’t. Of course, it would be more picturesque if there was snow around and perhaps, I will just have to come back again in the winter.
Having spent maximum time watching the monkeys, I was one of the last back down to the cafe area for lunch (and to purchase the local Kit Kat specialty – apple, as the area is known for growing some of the best apples in the country) before jumping back in the bus for the return trip to Nagano (passed lots of apple trees) and to our temple accommodation for the night.
The temple inns, or Shukubo as they are known, were created to accommodate pilgrims travelling to the nearby temples for blessings and we were to follow in their footsteps. The Inn was beautiful, with tatami mats on the floors (hence no shoes inside as these woven grass/rush mats are very delicate and very expensive) and sliding doors. The rooms were basic, right down to the bed, which they called a futon, but clearly the west has adapted that word to include an actual bed base, whilst in Japan it is literally a thin mattress on the floor. That said, I had expected it to be way more basic than it was.
As is normal in accommodation like this, the Inn had a small Sento (an indoor, non-natural version of an Onsen), a traditional hot tub, that is very popular in Japan. They are generally communal (sexes separated) and in almost every Sento, you must be naked to jump in for a soak! As typical Westerners, we were not that keen on the idea of naked communal bathing so we worked out a schedule so we could all enjoy the experience.
I was first up and was careful to read the instructions. First undress in the small changing room and leave your clothes there. Then move into the hot tub area (which is already hot and steamy) and wash thoroughly using the soap and shower head provided in the corner of the room – it is important to ensure you have washed off all the soap! Then submerge yourself in the hot tub. We were all allocated 30 minutes but only lasted around 15 minutes in the water as it was very hot but it was still a nice experience.
Perhaps it is worth noting, that most public Onsens or Sento’s do not allow tattoos, due to there presumed links with the Japanese gangs. Given that you have to be naked, you may need to cover any tattoos with plasters or tape. If you look around, there are some that cater more for tourists and allow tattoos.
Out of the hot tub and dressed, I joined some friends for a walk around the town where we came across the beautiful Zenkoji Temple (where we would visit the next morning), and a beautiful 400m pedestrianised temple approach, lined with shops and small restaurants. By this time it was already 5pm and many of the shops were closing up, but thankfully there were a few food places that stayed open till 6pm so dinner was to be early.
We started with delicious grilled Oyaki, a Nagano prefecture specialty, of a buckwheat dumpling stuffed with something (I had one pork and one mushroom). Further down the road we purchased a Mahoraoba-no Tsuki, a famous (?) confectionary of the Shinshu Zenkoji temple. The English translation is “Beautiful Moon of Fertile Land” with a whole chestnut in the middle of chestnut paste and dough. This was not my favourite so I had to follow it up with a beautiful ice cream with apple and an apple and custard pie for later lol
A particular observation on some of the shops here, in particular the Chestnut sweet shop – there were 3 ladies working in the shop and they passed the 1 item from one of them to another in a basket, each seeming to have their own little job to do to wrap it beautifully before it went back down the line to me at which point I place my money in another basket which is then passed between them. This was not the first time we have seen this kind of thing, but this case was extreme, I have no idea how they make any money.
With a full belly and the shops now closed, we soaked up the early evening atmosphere along the now quiet street, admiring the small temples, cherry blossom, small dressed up dogs going for their evening stroll and the muscular, fierce looking guardian statues alongside the large Niomon or Guardian Gate and of course the local take on manhole covers.
I decided to have an early night (although not a particularly good night of sleep) as we had an early start in the morning as we set off to the nearby Zenkoji Temple at 5.50am. Finally, we had a couple of local guides, and if we listened carefully to their very accented English, we got lots of interesting information about this important temple complex. Zenkoji temple was established in the 7th century, Zenkoji and is one of the most important temples in Japan and Nagano, the city that formed around it.
The reason for getting up so early was to be blessed by the priest as part of the temples O-asaji or morning service. So, after a short walk around, we passed the many Buddha statues up through the Sanmon gate (built in 1750) and into the main temple forecourt where we joined others (mostly locals it appeared) on our knees as we waited for the procession. As the priest passed by on his way to the ceremony he blessed us – basically by tapping us on the head with his rosary.
Once blessed, we followed the procession into the main hall (which was most recently rebuilt in 1707) for the O-asaji itself, which happens every morning around sunrise and is open to people of all faiths. Inside there were no photos allowed, so you will just have to trust me when I say that it was beautiful.
The ceremony began to the beating of drums and the chanting of sutras by the gathered monks. We spent about 20 minutes watching the ceremony, at which point our guides took us to the inner chamber and down into an underground chamber in search of the “key to paradise”. The chamber is pitch black and you need to feel your way around the corridor but putting your right hand on the wall, until you find the “key”. Doing so provides you with additional blessings so it was truly a blessed morning.
The temple complex is actually a non-sect temple, which means it is not affiliated to any specific Buddhist sect – it is believed this is because it was built before the individual sects formed. Therefore, it is popular amongst people of all religious backgrounds as a place to come and pray.
We spent some time walking through the vast complex which was so peaceful at this time of day but it was time for us to head back to our Inn for a traditional (and beautiful) monks’ breakfast consisting of lots of different things including miso, rice, salad, tofu, sour plum, fermented soya beans … most of which was pretty nice. It was then time to make our way back to the train station and on to our next destination.