Hot Springs, Monkeys, and Following in Pilgrims’ Footsteps

A few compelling reasons to visit Japan’s Tohoku region.

Walking up the gently inclined dirt path, surrounded by tall stands of Japanese cedar, I was eager with anticipation. It was December of 2019 and the well-trodden path was speckled with parka clad visitors, all headed towards to same destination.

As I rounded the corner, I saw a cascade of rushing white water and a hillside of swaying foliage. Squinting, I realized the foliage was actually coming towards me. It wasn’t grass or shrubs as I first thought, but groups of monkeys swiftly descending the slope.

Up ahead, a large alpha male was sitting on the path, scrutinizing the humans for signs of danger. Not wanting to pose for photos, he sprinted to a post further away where he could size up the tourists.

I hurried forward, past the frothy mountain stream, and onto a small platform where people were gathered around a steaming hot spring pool.

A huge grin spread across my face.

This is why I had come to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, a 45-minute bus ride from Nagano City. Surrounding the man-made pool were a number of fluffy, brownish grey Japanese macaque, some taking a drink, others getting ready to join the bathers already in the pool. Macaque are the world’s northernmost, non-human primates and their thick fur shields them from the frosty climate. Not all monkeys enjoy getting wet but in this park they loved to take a dip in the warm water.

Chatting with a park ranger, I learned that the troupe of 160 was also drawn to the pool because it got fed. Visitors are strictly forbidden to bring food in, but rangers provide them with barley, soybeans and sometimes apples as a treat. That explained why a group of juveniles was obsessed with picking at what looked like specks of grain on the rocks behind the pool. Although wild, the monkeys were nonplussed by all the buzzing tourists and snapping cameras. The ranger said he was there to make sure no one got too close or tried to touch them.

Soothing hot springs are a big draw for humans in this area, as well. Cleanliness and bathing is paramount in Japanese culture. The island nation is home to more than 25,000 hot springs, many with developed resorts dedicated to visitors craving daily rounds of hot mineral water relaxation.

A 10-minute bus ride from the park, I found a hot springs resort in the village of Yudanaka Onsen. Checking into the Yudanaka Onsen Yoroduya, I opted for a traditional Japanese-style room with tatami mat, Shikifuton (mattress) and a kakebuton (duvet). Although I’m not used to sleeping on the floor, the bed was incredibly comfortable.

The best part of staying at this hotel was the hot spring bathing, available to guests around the clock. When I got there, a smaller pool was open to men and a larger one to women. But, I discovered that every 12 hours, after a thorough cleaning, the designation was switched so both sexes had a chance to experience the bigger, outdoor pool.

The rules were strict. I was given a basket to store my clothes in the change room, and a small towel. Then, naked, I sat down on a plastic stool and using a hand-held shower nozzle sprayed off the day’s dirt and grime. Shampoo, conditioner and soap were all provided.

Cleansed from head to toe, I was ready for the pool. Walking quickly in the chill December air, I dropped the towel and slipped in. Steam gently wafted over me as I floated. It was evening and the moonlight made the whole experience magical. I drifted in the soothing water for almost an hour, feeling utterly tranquil.

Although Japanese are impeccably polite, and some are quite shy, when it comes to the onsen, there is no false modesty. Nakedness is a must. You can’t even take the towel in the water with you. This ancient tradition can make Westerners uncomfortable, and I was quite self conscious at first. But, after awhile, I relaxed. No one was there to stare at anybody else.

The next day, scrubbed to a rosy hue and feeling as light as a silk scarf, I headed to Nagano City, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Zenko-Ji temple was first on my list to visit. I joined guide Akemi Takagi with a few other tourists and learned that the temple houses the first Buddhist statue brought to Japan when Buddhism was introduced to the country in the 6th Century.

“The statue has been hidden for 800 years,” Akemi told us. “A replica was made and every six years it is brought out for the public to see. Even the highest priest cannot see the original.”  Since the next viewing is supposed to be spring of 2021, there is a good chance the pandemic will cause the date to be altered.

A Buddhist service was being held in the 1,400-year-old temple and we watched respectfully as participants lit sticks of incense, bowed their heads and listened to the priest’s prayers.

Akemi told us to look for the stairs on one side of the altar. They were said to lead down to the Pitch Dark Tunnel to Paradise. She explained that the sacred statue was hidden down there, below the altar, as well as a key. “The belief is that if you find the key you will be transported to paradise when you die,” she said.

Entering, it was as if a blanket had been thrown over my head. I couldn’t even see my hands in front of me. My heart started racing and I felt a little panicky. Creeping slowly along the tunnel’s 45-metre length, my hand grazed the wall. To keep steady, I repeated Akemi’s words to myself. Groping along, I felt nothing but the cool smoothness of the wall. Suddenly, my fingertips brushed against a cool metallic object. Breathing deeply, I squeezed the key and felt the terror of blindness lift. Light at the end of the tunnel had never seemed so literal, and also spiritually symbolic. Ancient pilgrims on their quest for enlightenment and facing the unknown must have felt just a little like I did. It was about surviving your fears, and putting your trust in the universe. The Land of the Rising Sun, I found, can teach you a lot about yourself.

This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt

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