A few days after the end of my first semester at TUJ, after I’d caught up on what felt like two entire months of missed sleep, I was eating dinner with my roommate as it dawned on both of us that we now had almost a month and half before classes began again to spend in a foreign country, a daunting prospect when coupled with the realization that a good number of the friends we’d made had just returned to the United States and various other origin points, with us staying behind in Japan for another semester.
The break actually went faster than we expected, as both of us were able to get part time jobs, or arubaito in Japanese, teaching English at different international schools, in order to offset some of the cost of the coming semester. On top of working, however, the best part of the vacation was definitely our New Years.
We were determined to spend at least a little bit of the break exploring a different part of Japan than Tokyo, and so we planned out a trip over the New Year weekend up into the mountains around Nagano, planning to spend New Years day at the famous Zenkoji temple, and then the day after take the trek out to see the snow monkey hot springs at Jigokudani Monkey Park.
We arrived at Matsumoto station around seven pm on New Years eve, and quickly realized that, due to an error in our planning, we were still about twenty km from the inn we’d reserved for the weekend. Right before we settled in for a long cold hike through the dark farmland, we were able to hitch a ride with an incredibly friendly schoolteacher who was looking for an opportunity to practice his English.
Upon arriving at the inn, we were greeted by our host, who said that he was about to start making dinner, if we were interested, and that there was a couple staying there that night as well. We had a great time that night eating and hanging out with our host and fellow guests, watching the Japanese New Years special.
The next day we woke up and took the train into Nagano station, from which we headed straight to the temple at the top of the city. I’d known that it was traditional to go to a temple on New Years day in Japan, but nothing prepared me for the crowds. The line we waited in just to enter the temple grounds seemingly stretched for kilometers down the road.
The next day we woke up, said goodbye our host at the inn and headed into the mountains to find the monkeys. This was something I’d been looking forward to doing since I’d come to Japan, and spent the entire bus ride from Nagano to the trailhead alternating between trying to catch some much needed sleep and worrying about the guide pamphlet’s disclaimer that “there is no guarantee that the monkeys will be at the springs”.
Jigojudani, or “valley of hell, is named because of the boiling water and steam that seeps froth from cracks in the icy ground, giving the valley, already surrounded by steep cliffs and only accessible via a narrow icy hike through the mountains, a completely otherworldly feel. And that’s not even mentioning the monkeys. After we’d hiked for about an hour, we suddenly descended out of the dense forest into the valley, and my fears about not seeing the monkeys dissipated instantly. The monkeys were everywhere, and running around, doing monkey things, bathing in the numerous hot springs, and jumping up to grab food out of the hands of those who’d ignored the signs along the trail.