December 28, 2012

The Arctic Monkeys

Two days ago, as we were leaving Fuji-Q Highland, we discovered that the tallest coaster at the park (and one time tallest coaster in the world) had unexpectedly re-opened as the winds had calmed down. We checked the time and decided we could fit it in before leaving the park, but this left us with a mad-dash for a taxi as we were catching a train from Fujisan to Hakuba that evening. But I write you now from a very snowy and beautiful chateau in the Nagano prefecture, so spoiler alert: we made it.

There were three things I wanted to accomplish while in Nagano: snowboard (64), hike the Japanese Alps (39), and chill with the famous onsen snow monkeys (88). I knew Richard was not a fan of cold weather and the snow, but the promise of meeting the stars of Baraka was enough to get him to go along with the plan. I also figured that during the time I'd be snowboarding, he'd be asleep, so he wouldn't be missing much.

And I was right! I set my alarm for 6:45am, which gave me enough time to gather my things, go down to the lobby where there was a shop, rent a board, boots, bindings, a beanie, goggles, and snow pants (I was a little unprepared...) and then make my way to the mountain. Unfortunately I was up and out an hour before the shop opened, so I instead decided to head to a Burton rental shop 20 minutes away by taxi. When I arrived, however, the place was empty. After some poking around, an Australian bro wandered down from the apartment above the shop and informed me that they had moved locations last winter and that I was a 60 minute walk away. For a moment I thought I had just stranded myself in the middle of nowhere as the cab had already driven away, but pointed me up the hill where there were a number of rental shops surrounding the Hakuba 47 ski resort.

The Japanese Alps
I figured it was only one day of riding so I didn't need to be too picky about my gear; the point of the goal was to say I've ridden in Japan rather than have some epic shred session. I wanted to have a new experience riding in a drastically different environment, so I probably would have settled for just about anything I could strap my feet to. I found a shop and rented a Burton Cruzer with one of the narrowest stances I've ever seen on a board as well as brand new, never been worn Burton boots that very well may have been as stiff as ski-boots. They also happened to be a size too big, but again, I was not planning on gnar shredding and was just looking to hit the slopes for a few hours.

Making my way up in the gondola
Blue bird and freshies. What more could I ask for?
Always love riding new places
The sun was shining, I had great tunes in my ears, and I had freshly groomed corduroys nearly all to myself. I've been told that the Japanese people believe that spirits live in trees so they will avoid riding too close to them and rarely, if ever, in between the trees. In America and Canada (the two other places I've ridden) tree-riding is encouraged and often provides the best snow. And because I was more concerned with riding freshies than I was offending made-up spirits, I rode all the untouched snow on either sides of the runs and in between the trees. And man was it fantastic! Something about the high elevation and extremely low temperatures results in really dry and light snow, so carving through even a few inches of powder is like riding on a cloud. I rode pretty much every run at least once and lapped the park a few times. I rarely get to ride anymore, and today I discovered what a big difference good gear can make, but I was pleased to find that I could still manage some gnartastic jibs and spins with a healthy side of buttered flapjacks. A lot of what I just said is completely made-up, but I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of it actually translates to something having to do with snowboarding. The point is I've still got it!

So I can now say I've ridden on another continent! This seems like the sort of place to come heliboarding, so perhaps one day I'll be able to return with some friends and explore the back country. Every line of site from atop the slopes ended in some snow-covered mountain. I actually didn't realize until I made my way up into the hills that I was in the Japanese Alps (39) but it became wildly evident as soon as I gazed out into the endless sprawl of ridges and mountaintops. I do wish our arrival in Hakuba had coincided with more fresh snow, but I can't really complain about the blue bird day and calm winds.

I met up with Richard after finishing on the slopes and we made our plan for tomorrow, which involved an hour long bus ride to Nagano city and then a 40 minute hike into the woods to find the famous snow monkeys that bathe in the hot springs.

We rose pretty early (by Kraft-time) and caught the bus to Nagano where we had just enough time to buy some scarves and gloves before catching another bus into the mountains. We were dropped off on a country road near a gas station, but there were plenty of tourists and signs that told us we were near:

I love that it's called Monkey Park. No bullshit, they know why you're there

Hiking up to the monkeys
Oh don't I know that feeling
Despite being a national attraction, they couldn't hire a better artist
About 30 minutes into our hike and we began to joke about how lame and overhyped this was all going to be
Our first monkey sighting!

At this point we were on a cliff overlooking the river and there were quite a few monkeys. Perhaps this wasn't going to be overhyped...
Homos in the distance
The monkeys ran wild, unrestricted by cages and uninterested in the humans
Well this is just adorable
We don't share a common ancestor my ass!
On the walk up Richard and I joked that it was probably going to be two or three monkeys sitting near some water and that there was no way this landmark was going to be as cool as what you see on National Geographic or in Baraka. But man were we wrong and it became apparent within a split second of being there. Everywhere you turned there were groups of monkeys just chilling, picking fleas off one another, riding around with babies on their backs, and generally just doing their thing. All the images we'd seen of the monkeys in the onsen bathing and relaxing were 100% accurate. Later, in the gift shop, we read some trivia about the monkeys and learned that there's about 160 of them and they all belong to one troop.

This is what Taylor looked like in every onsen

Another piece of trivia we read informed us that "Monkeys view humans as neither friend nor enemy. They do not care about people". It was absolutely true, so long as you didn't startle them. They really couldn't give much of a fuck that we were there, snapping photos and trying to get close. I wouldn't say they were jaded (though these exact monkeys have been featured in dozens of films and TV programs) but they certainly weren't interested in anything other than bathing and picking fleas off one another.

Moments before being attacked
You scratch my back...

Being quite protective

In the 3 months I have been here I have not experienced anything quite like this. In fact, in the 22 years I've been on Earth, I really haven't experienced anything like this (and I once sent an afternoon playing with an orangutang). Taking the 2 hour shinkansen train to Nagano from Tokyo to see these monkeys is an absolute must for anyone visiting or living here now. So often experiences are ruined by images and films we've already seen, and while it would have been unbelievably surreal to just stumble onto this monkey park without any prior knowledge of its existence, no amount of prior exposure and knowledge about this park can spoil the joy of being surrounded by 160 monkeys just doing their thing.

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