Snow monkeys at play in Jigokudani, Nagano Prefecture Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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Ideas for enjoying winter in Nagano...off the slopes

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By Vicki L Beyer

Winter is a great time to visit Nagano. Of course the skiing is great, and there are plenty of hot springs to enjoy as well. When you've had enough of those, or just want something different, how about watching monkeys enjoy hot springs at Jigokudani, visiting the artist community of Obuse, or checking out 19th century houses and dolls from around the world at Suzaka. All of these can easily be enjoyed via the Nagaden train line from Nagano Station. There's even a special pass to make your trip more economical (see bottom on article).

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

The "snow monkeys" (Japanese macaques) that bathe in hot spring pools deep in Nagano's mountains are quite well known. While they frequent the pools of Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park any time of year, viewing them in winter, immersed in steaming water surrounded by snow, has got to be the best.

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The scenic trail to reach Jigokudani Photo: VICKI L BEYER

This is not a zoo. These are uncaged wild animals that roam freely and visit the park that is open to visitors (800 yen) as and when they please. At the same time, to protect the animals, vehicles are not allowed close to the area. From Nagaden Yudanaka station, take a bus or taxi 10 minutes to reach the trailhead. From there it's about 1.6 kilometers walk (expect it to take 20-30 minutes). Be sure to have suitable footgear.

There is a closed circuit TV screen at the trailhead showing visitors the main bathing pool, making it possible to see if any monkeys are bathing. The trail is relatively level most of the way, with some stairs at the beginning and the end. It is also fairly well maintained, although can be icy when snow gets compacted or muddy as snow melts. A shop at the trailhead rents crampons, for those wanting an extra bit of security. I took my trekking poles and they came in quite handy. The walk was exhilarating, refreshing and scenic.

At the entrance, there are displays with close-up facial photos of several of the park's better known simian patrons, with their names (as assigned by humans, no doubt) and ages also posted. I confess I could not figure out who was who when I actually saw them.

The biggest surprise upon arrival was finding the valley full of monkeys, not just bathing but going about other monkey business as well. Apparently in winter when food to be found in nature is scarce, the park arranges regular feedings, which, of course, encourages the monkeys to be in the park area. They scamper around the hillsides and over the river bisecting the valley, groom each other, and sometimes spar, even as tourists walk among them. While you can get quite close to them -- or perhaps they are the ones getting close to you -- it's best not to try to touch.

There is one older Japanese inn just outside the park, Korakukan Ryokan. It has its own rotenburo outdoor bath where guests may find themselves bathing with the monkeys, something not otherwise possible (desirability, of course, is a separate question).

Yudanaka is also a staging area for skiing, so accommodation is plentiful near the station and in the general area.

Obuse

I think of Obuse as a kind of artists' colony, although it might not make such a claim and in fact supports various agricultural and industrial efforts. Perhaps my impression comes from the sculptures placed here and there along the streets, or the town's association with Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), one of Japan's most influential artists, who spent many of his later years working here.

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A sculpture on the streets of Obuse Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The town is host to a Hokusai Museum (open daily 9:00-17:00; admission 1,000 yen) as well as the Takai Kozan Memorial Museum (open daily 9:00-17:00; admission 200 yen). The former contains a substantial collection of Hokusai's work. The latter, housed in the former residence of Takai Kozan, the patron of the arts who sponsored Hokusai's work while in Obuse, features Takai's life and art. Both the museum displays and the early 19th century structure housing them are of interest.

One of Hokusai's major works while in Obuse is the spectacular and colorful phoenix ceiling of Ganshoin temple on the outskirts of the town. There are also wonderful views across the valley from Ganshoin, especially in the winter when the mountains are snow-covered.

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A quaint corner of Obuse's old town Photo: VICKI L BEYER

In the nicely preserved "old town", there are a number of art galleries and craft shops.  These shops and the laneways of colorful 19th century buildings make it a fun place to stroll, too. The town is particularly well known for its chestnuts, so chestnut ice cream or other sweets featuring marron are available at a number of shops and cafes.

Obuse is on the Nagaden rail line about halfway between Nagano and Yudanaka, making it an easy stop on the way back from seeing the snow monkeys.

Suzaka

Another interesting place to stop on the way back to Nagano from Yudanaka is the town of Suzaka. The well-known fruit producing area has a surprising number of museums and historical buildings (good activities when the weather is cold).

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The preserved gate to a silk weaving plant, built in 1898, at Suzaka Art Park Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The Suzaka Art Park (a 25-minute walk or less than 10 minutes by taxi from Suzaka train station) may seem like just a quiet park alongside the Dodo River, but it's well worth a couple of hours of your time.

One feature of the park is the World Folk Doll Museum, with dolls from more than 90 countries around the world. (Open Thursday through Tuesday, 9:00-17:00; admission 300 yen).

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The 30-tier display of Hina dolls at the Suzaka world doll museum Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Now through April 14, 2019, the museum has a special exhibit (admission 500 yen) of over 1,000 antique and vintage Hina dolls, many spectacularly arranged on a six-meter tall 30-tier dais, others in their own original sets. A traditional "full" set of Hina dolls, used for the traditional girl's day festival on March 3, contains 15 dolls and various accessories. A number of sets are also on display in the historical buildings next door to the museum.

There are four 19th century historical buildings. The first is the gate to a silk weaving plant, built in 1898, now the entrance to the historical area. Even though it was built some 30 years after the end of the Tokugawa period, its black and white half timber style retains a Tokugawa period "feel".

Inside the gate stand three homes. On the far right is a thatched farmhouse, while on the far left is the two story home of a physician. This building was also briefly used as a school. In the middle stands a small "cottage", the residence of a low level samurai retainer of the Tokugawa period. Each provides insights to the lifestyles of their times.

After the exhibition of girl's day dolls finishes, the World Folk Doll Museum will have a special exhibition of "Go-gatsu Ningyo", boy's day-related samurai dolls and other accoutrements associated with the traditional boy's day festival of May 5. That exhibition runs from April 20 to June 23.

Also in the Suzaka Ark Park is the Suzaka Hanga Museum. (Open Thursday through Tuesday, 9:00-17:00; admission 300 yen.) Its special winter exhibition in 2019 is a collection of 20th century "mini prints". It also has an extensive regular collection on display.

Transportation

Nagano Station is 80 minutes by shinkansen from Tokyo and 90 minutes by shinkansen from Kanazawa.

From Nagano Station, Nagano Dentetsu (Nagaden) runs both express (40 minutes) and local (70 minutes) trains to Yudanaka Station, the end of the line and the station closest to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. They offer a "Snow Monkey Pass" for 3,500 yen that is good for unlimited rides on Nagaden trains and buses, as well as admission to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park and is valid for two days, perfect for exploring everything in this article and even more. The pass can be purchased at Nagano Nagaden Station, Suzaka Station, Obuse Station or Yudanaka Station. To begin planning your trip, download a copy of the train timetable here.

Visitors only interested in seeing the snow monkeys may prefer the express bus that runs from the east side of Nagano Station directly to the Jigokudani Snow Park bus stop in 41 minutes. There is one bus per hour until mid-afternoon; less after that.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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