Just before the world turned upside down, I returned from an incredible adventure that took me to wildlife sanctuaries at different sites around the world. The first stop was Japan where I was able to visit the surprisingly famous Snow Monkeys and enjoy an early viewing of cherry blossoms. The extremes of winter and spring seem fitting for the month of March, and so my first blog in this series begins in Japan.
SNOW MONKEYS are actually the Japanese Macaque, once common throughout the island of Honshu. They received the name ‘snow monkey,’ because this monkey troop lives in areas where snow covers the ground for several months, and they became famous because they are the only monkeys known for bathing in onsens [i.e., natural hot springs].
Snow monkeys populating the Jigokudani Yaen Koan [Snow Monkey Park] are wild and living in their natural habitat, both within and outside the park. Employees entice the monkeys to spend time at the park by feeding them a mixture of raw barley and soybeans three times a day. It’s not enough food for a full diet, but keeps the monkeys at the park.
The other incentive is a hot spring with the water temperature about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. On a cold winter day, steam rises from the water as female monkeys and their young take a dip.
Sogo Hara, an avid hiker, encountered the monkeys at Jigokudani in 1957. Over time he realized that as developers constructed ski resorts, the monkeys were being forced to lower elevations. The monkeys began raiding crops, and the farmers began hunting the monkeys.
The monkeys also discovered the natural onsen outside the Korakukan Jigokudani guesthouse. One story says the monkeys saw people enjoying the hot water, and copied their behavior. The monkeys enjoyed the experience, but business at the guesthouse went down.
Soga Hara realized the only way for a successful human-snow monkey experience was for the monkeys to have their own park and baths. In 1964 Jigokudani Yaen Koan opened. In 1970, Life Magazine featured a snow monkey on its cover, and the snow monkeys became famous.
From Tokyo, reaching Jigokudani Yaen Koan was an expedition. We took a bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano, an hour and a half trip at speeds up to 130 miles per hour. The route was built for the 1998 Winter Olympics. The weather in Tokyo was mild when we left. As we traveled north, the temperature dropped and snow began falling. The train station at Nagano is at the 3000 foot elevation. But we weren’t near the park yet. That required a bus ride to the Kanbayashi Hotel where the trail began. It was cold and snowing.
The almost one mile hike was uphill, muddy, and strenuous. I began to wonder how much I really wanted to see these monkeys, but plodded on. Finally I reached the entrance to the park, and . . . high steps. Having come so far, I grabbed the rail and climbed some more. There was a small visitor center at the top, and a gentle walk on the other side. And there were snow monkeys running, playing, eating, and soaking in the onsen.
Although it was a struggle for me to get to the top of the trail, the experience was worth it. Near the hot spring, I encountered these youngsters enjoying the snow.
The snow monkeys are famous, but they don’t symbolize Japan. That honor goes to Mt. Fuji, and the cherry blossoms that bloom for two weeks every spring. The flowering begins in the south and moves north to Hokkaido. During the season, the Japanese Meteorological Agency gives a nightly report on the cherry blossom front so friends and family can plan cherry blossom viewing excursions.
The hanami [flower viewing] is an opportunity to enjoy the transient beauty of flowers, particularly sakura [cherry] blossoms and ume [plum] blossoms. Traditionally, viewers drink sake and eat sweets called wagashi, but tea is also an acceptable beverage.
Our group visited Nishihirabataki Park in Matsuda Town, about an hour south of Tokyo by car. Nishihirabataki Park was a local oasis blanketed by cherry blossoms and featuring views of Mt. Fuji. A pathway wound through the cherry trees. Below the trees bright yellow flowers from grape seed rape provided a contrast to the pink blossoms.
Cherry blossom season is an important economic event. In 2019 about 8.5 million tourists visited Japan between March and May, contributing about $6 billion to the Japanese economy.
This year, major cherry blossom festivals in Tokyo are canceled. Ropes mark off the trees, and signs forbid hanami.
It is my fervent hope and prayer that when the cherry trees bloom in 2020, we will once again be able to view the blossoms and marvel at spring’s new beginnings.
“Snowbound” photographed by Co Rentmeester. Life Magazine. Jan. 30, 1970.
Peter Hoskins. “Japan Cherry Blossom Season Wilted by the Coronavirus Pandemic.” BBC News. Mar. 20, 2020.
Travel arrangements by Abercrombie & Kent.
Sandra Wagner-Wright is the author of Two Coins: A Biographical Novel and Rama's Labyrinth. Both books are available in digital and print editions at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and Kobo. Rama’s Labyrinth and Two Coins are available as audiobooks.
Sandra blogs weekly about topics related to her travels, writing life, and the incongruities of life in general.