I took this trip on 26th and 27th February. My objective was pretty vague – I wanted a mountain trip in Nagano at the end of the winter season while I could still see some snow. I picked Nagano city as my destination for day one simply because it was about seven hours drive on local roads (I want to avoid expressways). I had been to Nagano city before in the summer and this time I checked that accommodations were very affordable. While COVID-19 had not yet hit big in Japan, inbound tourism was starting to drop dramatically as Chinese were no longer travelling and they compromise the largest share of inbound travellers.

Since it was off-season, there were a lot of hotel bargains. I normally stay at the cheapest business hotel that I can find, but I managed to score a great deal on a centrally located, 4-star hotel. The Koskusai-21 cost me only ¥4,000 with tax.

It was around 5pm by the time I got there, so I took a walk around the city. I had been there once before, and seen the famous sites such as Zenk-ko Ji, so my only objective was to have a drink and a bite to eat.

Since it was after hours and off season, there was not a lot open, so I made my way to the train station which seemed to have a lot of options. I could not find what I wanted, but I came across this sake bar that offered a sampler of three types that you could choose – all with descriptions of body and sweetness. Since I don’t know much about sake, this was a good time to try the extremes on the spectrum from dry to sweet. They also provided a daub of miso to cleanse the palate between choices. Yum!

I did some random walking around the station and came across this old-school coffee shop. I’m a real fan of retro Japanese style Western places. This place really fit the bill, but I did not go in.

One common thing about smaller medium sized Japanese cities is that downtown dining is often mainly izakaya, especially in the evening. I ended up settling for a yakitori bar and had a few sticks of yakitori and another beer before going home. It was not so exciting as the town was really dead that night. After that, I made my way back to my hotel.

As I said, I went to Nagano without and real plan, but in the back of my mind I did have the snow monkey park as a potential option. After reading the brochure I picked up in the hotel lobby, I was sold.

From what I had read previously, it was a bit hard to get to by public transit, but luckily I had my car so it should not be a problem. The brochure also did warn that parking is difficult and recommended taking a bus, but from what I figured given how slow it was, it should not be a problem.

I made the drive in the morning, leaving around 8:00 am. It was a beautiful ride through the countryside. Again, I was taking all local roads to it took me a few hours but the view from the car made it worthwhile.

Route from Nagano to Hirao

I went to the town that was listed as the starting point to enter the park. It was a small resort town called Hirao. It was really a really beautiful onsen resort town, but given the fact that it was offseason, it was totally deserted. Most of the onsen hotels looked either closed or just partially opened. I walked around a bit and found a sign telling me to go to another entrance which was about a 4km drive away.

Once I got to the other entrance, there was enough parking thankfully and it was free. From the main entrance, it was a beautiful, but mixed snowy and muddy 1.6km walk to the entrance of the park. Along the way, there were numerous signs that explained the life of the monkeys. On the last stretch just before the entrance, there was a beautiful little village on the mountains stream.

It was quite a surprise to see the monkeys wandering all around. They were not shy and you could get very close to them. The park was very strict about visitors not bringing any food – at the entrance there was a specific warning not to even carry snacks in your bag. Around the monkeys, you could also see staff that were there to monitor compliance by the visitors. Thankfully for this policy, these monkeys, which can normally very aggressive, seemed unfazed at all the presence of human beings.

It was quite cold, but it did not seem to bother them. They seemed be be foraging for small bits of food on the ground, which I later learned had been placed for them by the staff.

In and around the city of Nagano, I saw very few tourists. However, at the park it was a different story. There were a lot of European tourists there, and even a contingent of wildlife photography enthusiasts that had set up their long lense cameras, waiting for the perfect shot. I spoke to one from Finland – he had been there all day.

The most famous sight and draw of this location was the monkeys bathing in the natural waters fed from the hotspring. The bath was obviously man-made. The monkeys would spend time grooming each other and exit the bath with a wet coat. It did not seem to bother them to walk around in the cold after leaving the warm bath.

On my drive back, the mountains were covered with some light snow. Not too challenging. I passed through a ski resort area called Sugadaira Kogen (菅平高原)and was looking for a place to eat.

I happened by a quaint looking place called Mel’s diner. It featured a 1950’s America look to it. The signature dishes were baked curry and a local fried chicken. I had both and it really it the spot. I usually don’t write about food, but in this case this place was really special.

After this hearty lunch, I made my way back via Gunma (Takasaki) and Saiama prefectures, and got home to Tokyo before it was too dark at 8pm. Again, I took local roads all the way and avoided the tollways. This always seems more fun when it is well outside of the big cities, as coming back into the greater Tokyo metropolis it can be quite tiresome.

In summary, it was a great two-day, one-night excursion from Tokyo. Although I generally avoid famous tourist attractions, the Snow Monkey park was really worthwhile. It was a rare chance to get up close and see wildlife outside of a cage. The park management had really done an excellent job of both balancing the welfare of the monkeys with the curiosity of the visitors. If you are in Nagano, I highly recommend this attraction.