Saturday, January 16, 2010

Snow Monkeys and Hot Springs

Happy 2010 everbody! This is our my painstakingly photoshopped 'nengajyo', or New Years card.

While I have been busy procrastinating from blog writing, comicking, etc, I have been busy having many adventures in the countryside about an hour or two away from here.

One of the things I have always meant to do was do see the famous snow monkeys, if only because they are on the list of Things That Must Be Seen In Japan. Also on this list is Hiroshima, but it was a little too far away for a weekends visit, so we settled on the much closer Jugokudani (literally, 'Hell Valley').

Jigokudani is the home of several large groups of monkeys, who continually battle for the coveted land in the middle of the Jigokudani monkey park, which is maintained by humans. Long before it was a park, however, it was already coveted by the monkeys for its series of natural hotsprings bubbling up and joining the river. The steam and sulfurous scent was probably the source of the valley's name as a hell hole, but to the monkeys it was heaven-sent. When we visited in november, the park was already begining to show signs of snow.

When we went through the gates of the park, the first thing we noticed was hundreds upon hundreds of monkeys, walking on concrete paths and manicured lawns, ignoring us and even running through our legs when we blocked the path on a narrow wooden bridge. As we walked to the center of the park, white puffs of steam floated up from a small pond, where about twenty monkeys were dipping in their paws delicately testing the water, then either deciding the effort to dry their fur wouldn:t be worth it, or taking the plunge into the perfect monkey hotspring. The water looked pretty dirty, but that was about the only thing that was keeping us from being overly envious of our furry cousins. After watching their amusingly human-like expressions of relaxation and comfort, we wandered around and watched the alpha monkeys boss around the underlings, the moms groom each other while ocassionally screeching at their children to behave themselves, and the kids playing on anything they could get their hands on: ropes, other monkeys, brooms left by the park attendants, and even the 'snow monkey live webcam'. In other words, just another day in the life.

We left the snow monkey park to visit a hot spring town built for human needs, called Nozawa onsen. Here the springs that naturally come out are superheated by nearby volcanic vents, and even after they travel the miles to the earth's surface come out at a piping 70 degrees Celcius. As this is enough to char even a veteren onsen granny's skin clear off, the big public baths scattered around Nozawa have two pipes: one constantly running hotspring pipe, and one cold water tap that is normally left closed, or open to only a tiny dribble. It's up to the people in the bath house to control the temperature manually, and the people that have the say in the matter are of course, the residents of the onsen town.

locals boiling vegetables in the onsen water.

These residents have grown up around scalding hot baths, and like to keep it that way. I came in to a lovely wooden old bath house with three other girls from tokyo, all of whom said it was their first time. As it was getting dark out and you could already see your breath, we were looking forward to getting into the hot water. I put one toe in, and promptly drew it out with a cry of pain. I swear to you I have never been in a hotter bath.

I figured that I could probably get used to it, after all, look at the slightly overweight middle aged ladies laughing and gossiping right next to the hot water spout! I put a whole foot in and this time left it there for about fifteen seconds. Instead of getting used to it, my whole foot was now as red as a lobster and tingling with the pain you feel after being sunburnt. I looked at the other girls, who had discreetly split up and were trying to get in at the spot closest to the cold water spout, which was only open a dribble. I watched with envy as one was able to immerse her whole body, albeit with the intense concentration of a yogi coal walker, and emerged less than twenty seconds later.

Putting my cold hands on my burnt foot for relief, I was starting to shiver and become resentful, and hatched an alternate strategy... using a small tub, I spooned out some of the hot water from the bath, put my washrag in it, and gave myself a very hot sponge bath. Not very satisying, but it kept me warm. The tokyo girls made a hasty exit, but by then the town ladies turned their attention to me and became concerned.

"Why dont you get in? You'll catch your death of cold out there!" I shook my head patheticly. "I would like to, but it's too hot." They looked at each other. "Really? I think this is perfect." "Yes, just lovely." They looked at me and frowned. "Your skin is too thin."

... I had to bite my lip to keep a plethora of comeback lines from bursting out. Instead I politely laughed and quickly escaped the Hell Valley Hotspring.

As I rejoined Takeshi, he said the Tokyoites had overpowered the locals in the mens bath and turned the water on full blast, making a slightly more reasonable temperature. Another discovery: According to the locals, None of the out of towners ever came back. Apparently they like it that way.

But the temperature aside, we had a great time wandering around the scenic town of Nozawa dressed in the yukatas and the yukata-coats borrowed from the hotel we stayed at, wandering from bath to bath and eating snacks between. Eventually we even found one with a reasonable, or, according to locals 'lukewarm' temperature of 41 C, called 'bear's handwashing spot'. It was even bear free.

So that is one of our adventures out of three. New years resolution is to post more often, but that is also up there along with waking up earlier and finishing my comic. So we'll see.

... (can I blame facebook for my lack of posts?)