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Zenko-ji and Monkeys in Nagano

JAPAN | Wednesday, 24 February 2010 | Views [1148]

Following my snowy stay in Togakushi, I took an early morning bus an hour back down the mountain to the city of Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympic games and home to the gorgeous Zenko-ji – a 1,300 year old Buddhist temple said to hold the first image of Buddha to come to Japan.

As I arrived in Nagano, the low morning sun held promise for a beautiful day.  Walking down the Chuo-dori, it felt like it was the first day of spring – that first day when the warmth of the sun finally penetrates the cold air, and every one and everything radiates with life.  Around me, people were seemingly unaware that it was a Thursday as they strolled to work at a leisurely Sunday pace.  The pigeons, out in full force, were swooping in flocks for discarded morsels of food while small children squealed in delight chasing after them.  Even the masses of senior citizens making their way towards the temple had a spring in their step (no small feat from some of them, let me assure you).

The buoyant atmosphere in the air made for an extremely pleasant morning of temple viewing, shop browsing, Rough Guiding (also known as; checking out hotels and restaurants in the guide and/or finding new alternatives), and a mighty bout of food sampling at the Suyakame Honten; a café/restaurant specialising in all things miso (including miso flavoured ice cream… which was not my favourite miso treat, I must admit – something about the salty soy flavour just didn’t do good things for my soft-serve experience). 

As the miso digested, I took a bus to Jigokudani Yaen-Koen (Monkey Park), home to around 200 Japanese Macaques who have a penchant for bathing in the natural hot springs in the area.  I’d heard about these ‘snow monkeys’ from a friend of mine a while back and had been dying to see them ever since, so given the park’s proximity to Nagano, I seized the opportunity to spend a few hours in the sharp stench of sulphur and monkey poo in order to get a few happy-snaps of these funny little Chubaka-like guys.  They certainly didn’t disappoint.  In fact, it is my firm belief that some of them were actually posing for the cameras (it is also my firm belief that one of them strategically placed a piece of poo on the rock in front of him so that it would appear in every photo I took – cheers, monkey).  It was so fascinating to watch them preening each other, playing, fighting, hugging (yes, they cuddle up for warmth… awwww), eating and, of course bathing, that I could’ve stayed watching them endlessly – and probably would have done had the sun not been making a rapid descent westward and I didn’t have a 40 minute walk on an icy path to negotiate in order to get the bus back to town.


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