Snow monkeys just trying to keep warm

From Tokyo, we headed 300km northwest via the super fast bullet train to the small village of Shibu Onsen.

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Futuristic bullet train
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Lunch on board

We were here for two reasons: to spend a night in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) and most importantly see the snow monkeys (Japanese macaques).

Ryokans have been part of Japanese culture for centuries and staying in one is a must do. The friendly owner picked us up from the train station and drove us to the property. As is traditional, there was no bed in our room: we would instead be sleeping on a futon in the floor. The windows were also covered with paper screens and we had kimonos and slippers to wear around the ryokan.

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Our simple room

We headed downstairs to the in-house hot spring (onsen) and were lucky that because we were the only guests we could bathe together. Usually in Japan men and women bathe separately. After slowly easing ourselves into the boiling (and smelly as it’s straight from the ground) water we relaxed into it.

One of the unique things about the village of Shibu Onsen is that each ryokan has keys for the nine (naked and segregated) public onsens in the tiny village. So you can don your kimono and clogs and onsen-hop around town…

Some of the public onsens:

But the next day was the real highlight of our stay – seeing the snow monkeys. We got a lift to the trailhead and began a 30 minute walk through beautiful alpine scenery.

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As we neared a clearing, we spotted our first monkey, just hanging out on the path. These monkeys are the northernmost non-human primate and have adapted to the freezing climate in a very unique (and I suppose very Japanese) way…

They spend their days relaxing in a hot spring!

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It was crazy, and looking at them close up and observing their behaviour together you could see how close genetically we are. Some of us more than others…

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We spent ages just giggling at the sight of them (although no one else seemed to be amused).

Definitely the highlight of the country so far. We loved it.

Next stop: Takayama in the Japan Alps

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