For me, winter is by far, the most beautiful season of them all. It’s filled with snuggly jumpers, christmas decorations, my birthday, and hopefully, snow. But, sadly, for most of us, snow is often a distant dream, or a light scattering that fades by sunrise.
I’ve always thought of snow as being something magical. I guess it comes down to the fact that I grew up in the north of England. For us, maybe 4 out of 10 Christmases would be white, and that made waiting for snow a big part of the holidays. Last year was my first time away from home at Christmas time and I was definitely worried that it wouldn’t feel like a real Christmas without mum’s roast dinner, Christmas TV, and, of course, the anticipation of snow.
So, last year, I took some of the guesswork out of it, and headed to a snow capped wonderland in Nagano, Japan.
A bullet train from Tokyo will take you around an hour and a half to Nagano station, so it’s great for short or long trips when in Japan. And, if you go in the winter, you’ll really be entering an amazing and beautiful landscape. From Nagano station, I recommend travelling further into rural Nagano and heading to Yudanaka station. From here you will have access to a large selection of traditional Japanese onsen, beautiful architecture, and bus trips to see the snow monkeys relaxing in onsen at Jigokudani Monkey Park. I remember the magical feeling I had stepping out from the train station into inches thick snow!
If you’re looking for a great, traditional Japanese inn to stay at nearby, I would have to recommend Uotoshi Ryokan (pictured below). This is where we stayed, and it was simply fantastic. The location is brilliant, just a few minutes walk from the station (we even managed it with suitcases in the snow), and nestled in a lovely little town filled with onsen. In fact, the ryokan is part of an alliance of other inns which offer their onsen services to guests for a small fee. You just buy a special pass from reception, and then you have a choice of 9 different neighbourhood onsen to visit and enjoy!
The biggest bonus from staying here though, is the amazing owner. He speaks English, so no worries there, and he is super friendly. When we arrived, he organised to drive us up to the snow monkeys in his own car so we wouldn’t have to take the bus. He also offers free Japanese archery lessons when you stay with him! That’s right – free. First, he demonstrates a traditional archery ceremony, then it’s your turn! We had so much fun trying to learn the techniques and traditions of this beautiful form of martial arts.
When you’re ready to set foot outside the ryokan, the town of Yudanaka has plenty to offer in terms of photo ops. The town is a winter wonderland of icicles, snow capped roofs, and traditional buildings. A walk through the town conjures up images of Narnia, set in Japan.
The town is also home to a good selection of shrines and temples, including one dedicated to the god of smoking (for both quitting, and continuing apparently)! Make sure you pack some solid walking boots though, as some of these sights require climbing some rather steep, slippery steps.
Of course, the most famous landmark of the area is the Jigokudani Monkey Park where you can see wild monkeys as they relax in natural onsen. This amazing sight has been featured on news shows and documentaries across the world, mainly because its so spectacular to see! The story goes that one of the Japanese monkeys slipped and fell into one of the onsen pools on the mountain, and when he realised how lovely it felt, he continued to climb in. Other monkeys gradually followed his example, and now the whole family spends long hours enjoying the steaming hot springs, surrounded by snow. They monkeys are pretty used to people being around, and you can get fairly close for pictures and that but, just remember, they are still wild animals. You will still need to be a little cautious around them, no prolonged eye contact, and no touching, and you should be safe.
In short, Nagano was an amazing trip for me. Snow, monkeys, hot springs and archery, all in one town. What’s your dream winter getaway? Do you long for a good snowy trip, or are you desperate for sun, whatever season? Comment below!
Check out these videos from the KinkiGeek Youtube channel to see more of this amazing destination!