Where There's Beauty in the Japanese Alps
Where There's Beauty in the Japanese Alps
Every year, skiers & snowboarders from around the world, flock to Nagano in search of the perfect powder, in the Japanese Alps. This Japanese prefecture has over 4 million people visiting per year because its tourism has both a winter season & a "green" season. In the winter season, the Japanese Alps are full of tourists looking for winter sports adventures and the "green" season is known as a place of pilgrimage since the Kamakura period.
The valley that most people choose in winter is Hakuba, a small friendly town with the population of about 9000. The roads are nice and clean and it reminds you of a small town you'd see an action hero go through in a film. It was the chosen location for an event in the 1998 Winter Olympics, and for great reason. The annual snowfall is ideal for winter sports and the ground temperature is bearable for families even with young children.
The Lovely Town of Hakuba
The main ways to Hakuba are either by taking the Shinkansen to Nagano city, then local bus or by taking the local train from Matsumoto. Both train and bus stations are next to each other and are the places where most people begin their Hakuba holidays each winter. We checked-in to a lovely resort with its own onsen and washed off the day's travel, went to the onsen and then prepared for a feast.
The family & I arrived at The Hakuba Brewery & Restaurant with big dreams and huge appetites. The restaurant is great for the warm & cozy appeal that's suitable for the entire family. To add comfort to the restaurant, they have their own free shuttle bus service, to get their customers & their families back to their destination safely. Which meant my first night in Hakuba, I was going to attempt to taste all of the brewery's best.
The menu caters more to the international appeal so there are amazing dishes like fish tacos & fish & chips. I'm just naming the dishes I ordered because they complimented the craft & local beers well. The whole night was a superb experience & it was a much-needed meal to ease the fatigue from traveling. We went back to the resort, eagerly awaiting the winter sports to come.
We started the morning early and headed to my favorite ski center called Iimori. The reason it's my favorite has a lot to do with my skill level. Iimori has awesome beginner to intermediate runs and has the perfect school that teaches winter sports.
There are about 8 other expert to pro level ski centers that are well accommodating to people at that high level. I'm just not there yet and will probably be a few more years since there won't be snow in Thailand anytime soon.
We spent the next few days in the same routine of eating, sleeping, ski lift, repeat. We may have taken a small break after the second day due to soreness. I'm not 20 years old anymore, you know. My rotation was snowboarding and snowbiking with the family while the kids enjoyed skiing.
The second level of the lift has a view of the Japanese Alps that's simply breathtaking. I truly love coming here year after year and hope the ye kind universe grants me many more, in the Japanese Alps.
The Legendary Jigokudani Monkey Park
The legendary Japanese macaque also known as snow monkeys, are the cute monkeys that routinely use the onsen in winter to stay warm. The Monkey Park is in Nagano and a perfect stop if you're visiting Hakuba. Our visit was our last day in Hakuba and we took the all-day bus ticket which was perfect. They routinely get you there and back on a scheduled time frame and bus tickets can be bought at the Hakuba train station.
There's a beautiful hike up through the mountainside, into one of Japan's coldest mountain peak that they call "Hell's Valley." They hike itself in total is about 4 kilometers or 3 1/4 miles so if you have infants or small children under age 4, just keep that in mind. The initial hike up the mountain is beautiful, especially during winter, with the snow naturally decorating the trees. The path is a well established and safe dirt path that reaches a natural gas hole that releases explosive steam every 10 seconds.
When you've reached the gas hole, you know you've made it to "Hell's Valley."
The next 800 meters is a well-paved walkway that scales the mountain peak upwards towards the ranger station and the entrance to Jigokudani Monkey Park. Once inside the park, while you're still at the ranger station, take time to study the Japanese macaques' hierarchy order they have posted on the outside walls of the station. In the onsen (hot springs), the Japanese macaques have an order of power and not just any macaque can just come up and use the onsen.
The onsen is only used by the ones that the alpha macaque allows. Which is usually his family and a very select few.
The other macaques have to huddle together to stay warm and depend on each other's warmth to survive each winter in "Hell's Valley."
The infamous monkey onsen is at the furthest point in the national park and is usually swarmed by amateur to professional photographers patiently waiting for a shot of their favorite macaque bathing.
I was standing at the very edge of the furthest end of the onsen when I saw the alpha's queen bathing the baby macaques. She gave me this look straight into my eyes & I thought she was about to say, "Hey human, give me a hand, will ya. You see I'm handling 3 babies right?"
It's quite interesting to see them face to face after studying the macaques' hierarchy order at the station. For me, it was almost like I knew them because all the macaques have full names that the rangers refer to them as and they are very aware of their names. They are also very aware of the complete hierarchy order so what the alpha says goes, unless he's being challenged for his position.
The mountain stream that houses the onsen, runs down to a lower valley area where most of the macaques that aren't part of the Japanese macaque royalty, depend on each other for survival.
Some are asleep & huddled together for warmth while others are socializing with other monkeys & people. They all have their own little personalities and one even tried to grab a photographers hat.
The little macaque just really wanted that particular hat to the point I had to run over there and help her scare him off. It was a harmless and cute scene that I hope everyone there will have a memory of, for ages to come.
Nagano was Incredible to Us
Nagano is a terrific place to enjoy the winter and in addition, it's also the prefecture known for premium apples. With the great Japanese Alps to the Snow Monkey Park, Nagano has endless opportunities for priceless memories. I usually spend 2 months of every year searching for the perfect powder in the Japanese Alps, with my great family & friends along the way. The people from Hakuba all the way to Nagano (city) have been so kind and helping that they've won over my heart & friendship. The locals are the same way I remember them, year after year.
I hope I get the opportunity to visit Nagano to see them, year after year for the next 100 years.
Authored by: @stewsak
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