If visiting the Japan Alps in the winter months then the snow monkeys are a must see, and even in the milder months they are very entertaining. They manage to be at once noble and comical, kowai (alarming) yet kawaii (cute) – much like Japan itself, in fact. They have become a major visitor attraction so expect crowds and rather staged attempts by the wardens to keep them in the baths by throwing in food. Although camera-wielding tourists can be off putting, seeing baby monkeys interact with each other and cuddle into their mothers up close makes it a very worthwhile stop when making your way through the Japan Alps. Also, the walk to the monkey park is scenic in itself, as one follows a winding pathway through the pine tree forest, passing a traditional torii gate Shinto shrine along the way.
Following the monkeys’ lead, and luxuriate in the natural piping hot spring water of this village yourself. We suggest making your way to the nearby Shibu onsen village at the foot of the hill, by crossing the red bridge over an aquamarine river, to experience a blissful soak. Numerous traditional ryokan onsen line the cobbled streets in a charming manner, and steam rises from under your feet to fill the fresh, chilly air around you. Join the few fellow onsen visitors in their traditional ‘yukata’ robes and wooden sandals wandering down the street, and take your pick between the public bath houses. Each onsen is separated by gender and their mineral rich waters vary in unique healing properties, which are believed to cure different ailments. Anime fans will be particularly thrilled by the multi-story wooden buildings that house the onsen here, as these architectural structures date back over 400 years, meaning that the village is reminiscent of the award-winning Ghibli film, Spirited Away.
Yudanaka is a sleepy town – ideal for a rural rest and conversing with friendly locals keen to practice their English, but sadly good restaurants are thin on the ground here so we recommend staying in a ryokan inn or minshuku B&B to be served delicious breakfasts and dinners. A stay here will also guarantee a quintessential Japanese rural experience, complete with traditional kimono, slippers and futon beds.
Approximately one hour by local train from Nagano city, Yudanaka is a welcome addition to any itinerary in the Japan Alps. As it is the only place in the world with an onsen exclusively for monkeys, we recommend it for all ages. One can also stop off at the town of Obuse en-route to admire one of the best collections of Hokusai’s artworks.