Snowy weekend with Brother Yei and the World’s Most Famous Jigokudani Snow Monkeys

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It is official – I am finally off to enjoy my long overdue, postponed break. 17 consecutive days in total. Just before I fly out to Singapore for my annual Chinese New Year family reunion, I made a short detour in Tokyo to visit my dearest cousin, Yei. For the past 2 years, he has been inviting me to visit him. (Even my dad stayed over at his place for 3 weeks last summer!) I tried a couple of times to fly over but due to my unpredictable work schedule, it was just impossible. Finally, 2 weeks ago, I found a perfect time slot just for him! It is just one promise I have to fulfil. Yeah, that’s the power of bromance.

 

Yei was excited when I told him about my visit. However, I imposed one condition. He must bring me to some nice places to fly drone. I was certain he was frowning when he saw my request over Wechat. Flying drone within Tokyo city is a definite no-no. The penalty is heavy (as high as HKD30,000 for first time offender).

Being such a wonderful doting older brother, he specially arranged a trip for me outside Tokyo. Early Saturday morning, we travelled a few hundred kilometres up north, to a small town call Karuizawa. The bullet train ride was only an hour but it teleported us to another completely different world. Just before the train entered the tunnel, it was all bare, dry, urban concrete landscape. After a few short minutes through the tunnel, the world outside was fascinating. It was covered by a thick coat of white snow! What a big constraint! Wow!

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Of course, my cousin enjoyed the surprise look on my face. I never expect to see snow this trip. I always have the impression that snow scene like this can only be found many hundred miles up north like in Fukushima and Hokkaido. So, you can imagine my candid bursts of discovery-happiness.

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We spent the short day exploring the small sleepy town. I wasn’t fully gear for the snowy condition. I kept slipping on the icy roads. The cold was extremely brutal. I didn’t packed enough juice for my dying gears. Within an hour, both my iPhone and Samsung shut down. Worst, my iPhone went flat from 70% to zero (in less than 10 minutes) while I was flying the drone over the ski resort. Without the iPhone, I lost sight of my drone. Thankfully, the auto return home function worked and I managed to land the drone manually when it flew back. What a waste, there were so many unused drone batteries left in my bag.

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With no drone to fly, Yei and I went shopping. There were a lot of tax-free outlet stores beside the train station. We went to the old town alley and bought some local food products (honey, jam and snacks). Yei was sporty to entertain me when I asked him to talk to my Osmo along the trip. I continued to test his patience and guess what, he even didn’t mind when I “forced” him to take a mushy, lovely, uncanny “bromance shot”. What a great brother!

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Next stop, I travelled further up north to see wild snow monkeys in onsen (hot spring pool) at Nagano. The Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is located 3 train stops after Karuizawa station. From Nagano station (¥16,000/adult return trip from Tokyo Station), I took another 45-min express bus (at Depot 24 right below the train station, cost ¥1400/trip) to Jigokudani Valley where I hiked another 2km (40-min) to the park’s entrance (park closes at 4pm during winter, ¥800/adult).

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Covered in thick snow, the hiking trail was beautiful. My trip was full of delightful surprises and discoveries. It was only upon arrival when I realised the important significance and uniqueness of this attraction.

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The Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is actually the ORIGINAL and ONLY site in the world where you find wild snow monkeys dipping themselves in onsen during winter. All these while, I thought the original site was in Hokkaido! There are other venues where you can find snow monkeys in onsen but none of those are in the wild, they are mostly in zoos and parks. You can imagine that surprise look on my face again when I realised this was actually THE PLACE that I saw on TV and newspapers repeatedly over the past 20 years! What a surprise! (The right analogy would be like seeing a Chinese castle and only to realise it was the Great Wall!)

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Despite its popularity and fame, there weren’t many tourists around. It was just a small group of 20 over visitors. I spent an hour at the park observing these magnificent primates up close and personal! These snow monkeys sure know how to indulge themselves! The only difference between the snow monkeys and us – they got to enjoy the onsen for free! Best of all, they enjoy free meals (wheat and barley) provided daily by the park rangers too! (The real reason for the feeding is to prevent the snow monkeys from trespassing, stealing food and harassing the visitors at the nearby onsen hotels. The park rangers hope to contain their movement within the forests.)

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Drone flying is not allowed as I learnt that there were many open air onsens where visitors dip without clothing. It will be extremely unpleasant for them to see a drone in the sky. Disappointed but I respected the privacy of the estates. Nevertheless, I had a relaxing time hiking in the snow and an awesome close encounter with these famous primates. What a great way to end this volatile Year of the Monkey!

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All in all, it was a short and great reunion with my cousin. Time was so short and precious that I didn’t even have time to meet my other lovely friends residing in Japan (Ernie, Martin and Mica!)

Back in Tokyo, Yei treated me to many top-class dining. Being a foodie, he loves good food, especially those awarded with Michelin Stars. Thanks to him, I put on extra kilos. Nevertheless, it was a really new experience for me to try so many new odd-looking-but-yummy dishes. I was never a foodie, so all these fancy dining concepts were refreshing strange for me.

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Yei flew back to Singapore this wee morning. Thanks for being such a wonderful, generous host and a dear brother. See you bro this Friday in Singapore! And not forgetting another mischievous monkey is waiting for me back home!

One Response to Snowy weekend with Brother Yei and the World’s Most Famous Jigokudani Snow Monkeys

  1. Irmengard Deinlein says:

    how wonderful, a trip to Japan will go on my bucket listQ

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