Catching the clankiest train we’d encountered in Japan, we passed snow-capped mountains, trees, houses and cars on our way to icy Yudanaka. We too became snow-capped, flakes gathering on our shoulders and beanies as we trudged up the slight incline to our hostel, where we left our bags to wander.
At the neighbouring temple, we imprinted fluffy snow on the steps with perfect footprints; unprepared for the cold, our feet quickly became numb . A shiny black kitten watched us curiously as we turned to walk through the town, asleep at 3pm – aside from the steam sneaking through cracks in onsen doors that dotted the streets.
Vending machines stocked mystery drinks labelled with a question mark – a cold white lemony liquid, reminding us too much of our surroundings. A stack of snow fell onto our heads from a rooftop.
It was becoming unbearably cold as the sun began to fade in the silent town. We tugged opened the sliding door to what seemed like an empty home – the only indication that it was the restaurant alluded to by an old Asahi sign outside being the many bottles of soy sauce, vinegar and chilli. A little elderly lady appeared. She spoke not a word of English, but enthusiastically waved us in to sit on floor cushions at one of four low tables. We ate delicious home cooked ramen, fried rice and gyozas while the lady grinned, gave us slices of nashi pear and made sure that Japanese green tea was filling our cups before we could empty them.
We were grateful for the shelter from the harsh cold and took our time mustering the courage to venture out again. We admired landscape paintings at a nearby sake and beer brewery, failing to utilise the free taste testing after the shock of the first sip.
We froze again on our walk back to the hostel, where we put on our slippers, checked into our tatami room and set up futon beds. We headed to the empty onsen after a questionable fuel heater failed to warm us. The onsen’s water, drawn from the many hot springs warmed in the volcanic terrain beneath our feet, was far more successful in defrosting us (men & women separately). Once our muscles had all but melted we rinsed off, just as two other ladies strode into the room as though bathing with others was the most natural thing in the world. That night, seeing the town alive at last as people with flushed cheeks walked the dark streets in kimono robes and geta sandals, it felt like it was.
We were up early in -2 degrees for a peaceful 40 minute uphill walk through snow – agonisingly beautiful.
Here, the mountainside wakes up with the monkeys – an early morning rustle in the freshly dusted treetops – taking a deep breath of crisp air alive with tinkling trickle melody and the steam’s slow dance with the earth.
We reached the Snow Monkey park early, in time for the wild congregation and too early to be surrounded by many people. Hundreds of monkeys ignored us entirely as they fought among themselves and picked at each other’s fur. I placed a heat pack in each glove to warm my fingers as we stood watching the tiny infant monkeys play while the bigger ones bathed in the onsen, visibly relaxing just as we had the night before. They were everywhere, until suddenly the sun drew a line at the top of the mountain, and they dispersed to reach the comforting patch of light.
We set off back down the mountain fuelled by oreos and delicious sushi, fried sweet potato and sweet shinsu apple soft serve (grown in the region, as we’d learned that morning when the grocery shop worker gifted us some with our purchase of breakfast bananas).
After reaching a tall bronze statue standing at the top of an even taller set of stairs, I fell asleep at the Buddhas feet. We returned to the little elderly lady’s restaurant for dinner (soy noodles and fried rice) and raced back to the hostel before the warmth in our stomachs dissipated.
The next morning, the hostel receptionist wished us safe travels by repeatedly hitting a rock with a stick of metal in an attempt to create sparks – explaining that this kiribi practice would protect us – and we walked to the train station through the white specs swirling in the air.