Simon Stanley heads to the Japanese alps in search of a white Christmas. Photos by Simon Stanley.
I must have checked the weather reports three times a day in the weeks leading up to the festive break. The vital component for our Japanese Christmas getaway was gone. December’s early snowfall had melted within days and nothing was coming to replace it.
“We need a miracle,” read one snow report as many winter-sport enthusiasts began to blame El Nino for the delayed start to Japan’s ski season. With optimism and a few million Dong we’d kitted ourselves out in skiwear at the Russian Market then jetted off to Tokyo.
“We normally have snow up to here by now,” says the manager of Koishiya Ryokan guest-house as we check in. We’re in the spring town of Shibu Onsen, an hour by train from Nagano. He’s holding out his hand as if demonstrating the height of a six-year-old. I stare out at the drizzle falling on the street outside and remind myself that we’re still in one of our favourite countries in the world.
With a history dating back around 1,300 years, this quaint hillside retreat hasn’t changed much over the centuries. Overlooked by several wooden temples and lined with traditional inns and guesthouses, its quiet cobbled streets echo with the sound of wooden footsteps of customary geta shoes as visitors and locals visit the nine public onsen (hot baths) that give the town its name. Each is fed directly from the scalding volcanic waters drawn up from the nearby springs and through swirls of steam wafting up from grates in the road, couples, friends and families dressed in traditional clothing make their way from each one to the next. It’s a rite of passage for many, the act of social bathing being steeped in Japan’s rich cultural tapestry and the waters at each location supposedly able to cure differing ailments and bring good fortune.
The other big draw to Shibu Onsen are the famous macaque ‘snow monkeys’ that live in the surrounding mountains; the most northerly-living, non-human primate in the world.
When a young macaque accidentally slipped into an open-air onsen at a mountainside hostel in the 1960s, news of its warming effect spread among the troop and it soon became their regular hangout to escape the cold. The local residents eventually built them their own private pool which they continue to visit today before returning to the wilderness at night.
“A little sleet begins to fall through the pine trees, gradually turning to snow as we ascend.”
With snow clouds looming over the surrounding peaks, we’re heading to what is now the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, a 1.6km uphill hike from the nearest road. A little sleet begins to fall through the pine trees, gradually turning to snow as we ascend. By the time we reach the monkeys, the mountain tops surrounding us have taken on a fine white dusting. It’s too warm to settle at this height but snow flakes are swirling all around before vanishing in the cloud of steam hovering over the water where a dozen or so of the primates are taking a bath. A few babies play around the pool’s edge while the elders sit quietly in the water, eyes closed, heads back, drifting off to sleep as another preens their fur. The only place in the world to see such a sight.
Shuttle buses are available to ferry visitors between the park entrance and nearby towns, but with dedicated signposts for those able to make the journey on foot, a few notable landmarks stand along the way such as the Tamamura Honten art gallery and the Shiga Kogen craft beer brewery and tasting room.
Food options here are plentiful when you know where to look. With most Japanese restaurants, frosted windows, curtains and a simple wooden sign are all that you have to go on when eating out. Tamagawa, a modest-looking noodle shop on the main street, is well worth locating. This 80-year-old institution mills its own flour which is then turned into soba noodles (a speciality of the area), and served in a rich broth alongside meats, green vegetables and mushrooms. It’s hearty and warm and an ideal way to beat the chill.
The Clock is Ticking
The day’s snowfall was short-lived. We have 72 hours until Christmas but it’s still too warm. We’re back to drizzle. All eyes are now on the days ahead when temperatures are set to fall. We settle down for the evening in our guesthouse’s cosy cafe/bar/restaurant for pints of local craft ale. It’s my kind of place. Ideally situated in the heart of Shibu Onsen, it’s clear why Koishiya Ryokan ranks highly the accommodation choices here. Above the modern ground-floor space, all guest-rooms have traditional tatami flooring and feature sliding paper panelled doors, futon beds and funky yukata kimonos for you to pad around the building in or wear around town on your way to the baths (underwear optional).
There are a few basic rules when visiting an onsen; firstly to shower before entering at the provided wash-points, and secondly that you must be fully naked (males and females bathe separately). If you’re happy to bare your bits, go for it. If you’d prefer something more discreet, private pools can be rented by the hour at varying prices and with varying degrees of prettiness.
Christmas Eve arrives and it’s time to move on to stage two: snowboarding. While the nearest ski resort is around 20 minutes by car from Shibu Onsen, the lack of snow means it has yet to open. We hedge our bets on the slightly higher area of Hakuba, one of Nagano’s largest winter resorts, situated on the opposite side of the city.
“We normally have two metres of snow outside by now,” says Koki Munekawa, one half of the husband and wife team who run Il Bosco, a gorgeous wooden chalet situated just 500 metres from the Hakuba Goryu ski area. We really do need a miracle. There’s just a muddy smudge of snow on the slope and it’s shrinking every day. “Maybe it will snow tomorrow,” he adds.
It does. It’s Christmas day and the pine forest outside our window now stands behind a veil of large feathery flakes.
By late afternoon it’s yet to settle in the village but the brown slopes along the valley’s edge are disappearing. We set off on foot to Echoland, the next village along, where The Cherry Pub serves us up a delicious Christmas day wood-fired pizza and warming pints of Yebisu stout. With an open fire roaring and wrapped in our thick woollen jumpers, we cosy up and watch the snow tumble from the sky. By the time we step outside, temperatures have plummeted and a three-inch-deep carpet of snow is stretched out along the path home. Sounds are muffled and the landscape of the valley sparkles in the darkness.
The morning after I’m treated to some of the best snow I have ever ridden on. Japan is famous for its powder and I can see why, but I’m more relieved that we finally found what we came for.
Published February 2016 – AsiaLIFE Magazine