Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Japanese Snow Monkeys

     Although I was very interested in seeing snow monkeys in Japan, tempted by documentaries which showed them lounging in hot springs while snow fell upon them, I was not keen to visit Japan.  Primarily this was because of Japan's position on whaling.  Japan continues whaling, using the excuse (which is a lie) that killing whales is for "scientific purposes."  And if that isn't enough, there's Taiji Cove and the annual massacre of dolphins, which cannot possibly be justified.  So, I had figured it would be a long time before I got around to visiting Japan - despite it offering some wildlife and scenery of interest.  I met a number of people who had visited the snow monkeys and said it was a wonderful experience, including several I was on my trip to S. Georgia with.  
     As fate would have it, on that trip I also met a friend who proposed that we go see the snow monkeys together.  I resisted the idea - not only because I wasn't comfortable visiting Japan given its treatment of marine mammals - but because it seemed to me that the cost of a trip to Japan vs. the upside, seeing only one species, didn't justify allocating limited time and funds on the trip.  I also had work and lots of other obstacles that seemed to prevent making plans for such a visit.
     So, my friend made plans to go without me, yet kept inviting me all the same.  And, as things happened, I decided to seriously consider it.  It would only be a 10 day trip, I'd have someone to split lodging costs with, and I would be able to go with someone who had been to Japan several times.  I was a bit intimidated about traveling to a country where I didn't speak the language and likely couldn't even guess at the meaning of signs.  My work commitments happened to allow for the dates which had been selected, and the clincher was that I got a ticket on miles.  Thus, suddenly the trip became very affordable, and too tempting to resist.  I asked myself if passing up the opportunity, not likely to come around again, would really be likely to have any impact whatsoever on Japan's whaling or dolphin policies.  As much as I'd like to believe it would....
     So in January I found myself off to Japan.  We were based at an Airbnb in Tokyo and headed to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park before long, which is a day trip from Tokyo.  You can take a variety of day trips or just take the train from Tokyo to Nagano and then take a local train to Yudanaka and take a bus to the park.  One you arrive at the park gates, it is a 1.8km walk along a wooded trail to the monkeys.  (If you go, take appropriate footwear for ice, snow and mud - I encountered all three).
     The walk is through gorgeous, stately, enormous cedar trees.  The snow on the cedars and the silence of the forest was outstanding.  I didn't get any good photos as I had planned to take them on the way out of the park, when I was not worried about losing time with the monkeys, and when I was on the wooded side of the trail.  As things happened, I never got the chance, so this is my only photo of the trail.
     Be aware that if you take a tour, your time with the monkeys may be very limited, 30 to 60 minutes or so.  You cannot rush on the trail as it is icy and most of it has no guard rail or fencing and quite a drop off.  At the end of the trail there are stairs to a man-made area filled with pools.  Apparently, this area has natural hot spring that people have used for ages.  At one point, the monkeys got interested and, unsurprisingly, copied the people and started using the springs.  The people didn't care to share and the solution (rather creative) was to build the monkeys their own spa area...and then to begin to sell tickets to see them in the hot springs.  The monkeys (Japanese macaques) are wild, and this is better than them living in captivity by far, but it isn't quite as natural as some of the documentaries portray it.  I wanted to see them all the same, and I'm not sorry that I did.  It's possible to see them year round in the park.

     Monkeys have a status and rank that determines their time in the pool, yet monkeys of all ages were soaking.  In the snow around the pools, others groomed and cuddled.  Like all primates, it is impossible to look into their eyes and not see a kinship.  They share much with humanity.

     Young monkeys swam, dove and pushed each other under the water.  To me, this pair looked like a grandpa and a grandson sharing some bath time.

     This youngster played by himself while the others played in groups, but didn't seem sad about it.

     I sat on some rocks at the edge of the pools.  It was hard to get photos because of all the people around the pools, and all the steam.  Getting a great vantage point was a challenge and I wished I had longer.  It would be easy, despite the cold, to spend all day watching the monkeys groom, swim, play and squabble.

     This little monkey was super adorable, and was only about a foot from me for quite awhile.
     Family or friends?  Either way they enjoy their companionship.
     The pools are at the edge of snowy rocks and mountains, and it is odd, when you step back, to see all the people surrounding the monkeys.  Although there are supposedly park staff, I did not see them regulating any bad behavior.  Luckily there wasn't too much bad behavior, but there are always a few tourists who can't be bothered to respect the animals.

     When I went to get up off the rocks right next to the pools, a woman attempted to help me by pulling on my arm.  Unfortunately, it was my right arm, and my right shoulder dislocated.  I've dislocated it several times, but never before when wearing a backpack and several winter layers.  I told her that my shoulder had dislocated and asked for help.  A few people spoke English and helped me get my backpack off and get up without using the dislocated arm.  I asked them to locate my friend, who was really rather shocked and a little panicked but I explained that I knew how to handle it and not to worry.  The kindly woman and her daughter helped me by locating in my backpack the valium and water I carry in case my shoulder dislocates and get my jackets off.  When my arm was free and the valium was on board, I just needed to find a place I could lay and dangle my arm. 
     The only surface available was a rock, so I climbed up on it, but the snow below was too deep to let my arm dangle freely, as it needed to do to let gravity pull it back in, and I also lacked an appropriate weight to hold in my hand to assist gravity.  So, being a little influenced by the valium to be more talkative than usual, I stated this problem out loud.  A kindly Australian man leaped up and scraped the snow out of my way and gave me his water bottle thermos.  In just a few moments of laying on the rock, with a crowd gathered around (rather awkward!) my shoulder slipped back in.  I used my scarf to make a sling to keep it in.  My friend was good enough to carry my backpack out down the trail - but I didn't take any more photos.
     In addition to the shoulder dislocation, my right foot had been troubling me and was really painful during and after this hike.  I learned later that it was actually broken (broken heel), but I hadn't known at the time.  Looking back, I certainly hope it's the only hike I have to do with a broken bone and a fresh dislocation.  I can honestly say that all the time and effort my mother spent making me tough was not lost - it isn't something I would necessarily have enrolled to learn, given a choice, but I can't deny some pride at having learned it so very well all the same.
     On another note, I completely - and very unexpectedly - loved Japan.  It was safe, easy to navigate, the people were incredibly polite and very helpful, the food was good, and the entire country (what I saw of it) was clean.  I absolutely loved Japan and hope very much to return some day.
     I attempted to go back to see the monkeys another day, but alas, when I arrived in Nagano I learned that major snow had closed the monkey park.  It was closed for four days.  I was lucky that we planned our visit before that storm and that I had one day with them, but I felt it had been cut short by the dislocation and I really wanted another chance.  Maybe some other year.  I hope so.  And now that I've fallen for Japan, there is much, much more I'd love to spend time exploring there.

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