15th February: Nagano

Though most of the group went back to the snow monkeys, I was amongst those who elected to explore Nagano.

Here, we are looking straight up at a dragon carved above the wooden gate of a temple.

From near the first image but looking in the opposite direction, we are above the roofs of the town.  There are the traditional windows behind the elegant street lamps, overhead wires and a stray television aerial.    The roofs are covered in heavy snow with footprints, two stories above the street.  Some would be birds and some appear clearly human.

A strange figure at the side of the road.  Perhaps a hermaphroditic bear clutching a flask of saki.

Street scene

Not a bus stop.

This is a place at the side of the street to soak your feet in warm thermal water.  The natural hot spring water comes out of the bamboo tube into the stone bowl and thence down the channel to the trough.  I would guess that the stone bowl would also be a place to rinse your hands and warm them up.

Beware when you walk the streets at night…

This is close to the preceding photograph and probably associated with a Shinto shrine but I don’t remember the precise context.

Looking through an ancient gate.  We looked through some gates in Kyoto and Nara to sublimely arranged Zen gardens but I don’t think there is any particular rearrangement of nature going on here.

Onsen-ji Temple

This is Onsen-ji Temple (or Hot Spring Temple).  As it happens, this is the 1,000th image I have posted in this blog.

In front of Onsen-ji at the right, this I presume is a female Bodhisattva, in the falling snow.

This is Onsen-ji‘s great brass bell.  Not for the use of the public, of course.

We are ten or twelve kilometres from the centre of Nagano city here, in an old area close to Jigokudani Snow Monkeys ParkNagano itself originally formed around the Zenko-ji Buddhist Temple in the seventh century.   The area was also the site of the ferocious Battle of Kawanakajima in the Sengoku or Warring States Period.  More recently, Nagano hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Street scene

Street scene

This is at the side of the road.  I think it is part of a Shinto Shrine and people would make a donation for the small wooden plates, then inscribe them as a wish fulfillment exercise.


An onsen (hot baths) on the street.  The door at the right is the entrance for males.

A view up the valley.  I imagine there could be quite a torrent here in flood when the snow melts.  That would be a ski slope on the hill in the distance.  Certainly not a glacier.

In a carpark I found a map of Australia, courtesy of snow, tarmac and tyres.  Just missing the top of Queensland and a bit more definition for the Gulf of Carpentaria.

14th February: Nagano – Snow monkeys (Day 2)

After photographing the landscape and the serow (see previous post), I turned my attention to the macaques in their hot pool.

Macaques and their reflections through the heat haze of the hot pool.

A clearer shot with wind blowing the steam away.

For more information on the monkeys and their environment, see the previous three posts.

The monkeys are quite unconcerned by the presence of humans and people can get very close to them. At various times of the day there were quite a few people milling around the pool.

Five images of a mother and her youngster.

It can be difficult to taker wider shots at the pool without getting other people in them.

Macaques turning up for the family photo shoot in the outdoor studio.

Mutual grooming is a very important social ritual.

14th February: Nagano – Jigokudani and a Serow

Jigokudani Ryokan

Vehicle near Jigokudani Ryokan

Back again at the Jigokudani Monkey Park, the top shot show the trees in front of the Jigokudani Ryokan and the next one, a vehicle parked nearby at the side of the trail. That vehicle wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

The monkeys have a river to cross and the way they manage this is by jumping from rock to rock.

Click on any image to see it in a larger size. If you click on this image, you see it in a larger size than most.

I think most of the others in the group were photographing the macaques in the pool at this time but I was transfixed by the mystical landscape as the snow and fog rolled in.

It just goes to show that fine weather is not always the best.

A better view up here?

Unsurprisingly, Japanese macaques climb trees.  They commonly sleep in trees.  In part in winter this is to avoid small avalanches that might fall out of the trees while they are asleep.  It is probably also for protection from predators.  They would be safe from wild dogs while mountain hawk eagles are diurnal so wouldn’t attack them at night.  If raccoon dogs are also their predators, they might not be entirely safe from them because although they are a dog (and not a raccoon), they have long claws and can climb trees.

serow (colour image)

serow (monochrome image)

An unexpected visitor turned up.  It was quite a distance away on the hill and all images were taken at the full-frame equivalent of 450mm and cropped in quite considerably.

It is a Japanese serow and the Japanese call it a Nihon kamoshika.  It is said to be a goat-antelope but this is a vague and misleading term so I’ll explain further using Latin names.  It is a member of the family bovidai which includes cattle, sheep, goats and antelopes.  Antelope, though, is more a residual term than an accurate description.

The serow is in a sub-family called caprinae which includes goats but not antelopes.  The serow, therefore, is closer to a goat than an antelope.  The caprinae range from solitary animals defending a small range such as serow to herd animals such as sheep and goats.  The serow is little changed since the Miocene about 5 to 7 million years ago.  Apart from another Asian animal called the goral, its closest relatives are the chamois from Europe and mountain goats from America.



In this image you can most clearly see the preorbital glands below the eye.  From these they secrete a scent similar to acetic acid or vinegar to mark their territory.


There are around 100,00 serow in Japan.  They live for about 10 years in captivity but it is not known for how long in the wild.

13th February: Nagano – Snow Monkeys

The previous post was walking in and walking back so here we are at the famous hot pool frequented by the “snow monkeys”.

Hot and steamy….

I wonder what I can do with this…

Ah, it’s an ice block.

The monkeys are in fact Japanese Macaques and are the most northerly-living primates apart from the ones known as homo sapiens.

We are in a secluded mountain valley.  The monkeys have been frequenting the hot springs here since 1963 only, when a female macaque named Mukubili dived in to fetch some soy beans and decided she liked it in there.

Some decades ago, the prevailing theory was that only humans were able to benefit from learned behaviour.  A female Japanese macaque called Imo disproved this.

Researchers left sweet potatoes on a beach so they could lure the macaques out into the open and observe their behaviour.  At first they all brushed off the sand before eating them.  Imo found that a more successful method was to dip the sweet potatoes in a fresh water stream.  Then she found the taste improved if she dipped the sweet potatoes in sea water as she ate them, for a bit of salt seasoning.  Later she found that if she made a ball of sand and wheat and put it in the fresh water, the wheat would rise to the surface and she could eat it free from the sand.  In each case, first her offspring picked up this behaviour, then other females, then the whole troupe.

Japanese macaques are diurnal (they sleep during the night) and they are sexually dimorphic (males are bigger than females).  They are primarily fruit eaters and also eat leaves, seeds, nuts, bark, mushrooms, insects, snails, crabs and crayfish according to the season and availability.

Stay away, you nasty male (macaque) ….

Females bear one young one at a time, which they raise for two years so that they can be taking care of an older one and a younger one at the same time.  The young start by clinging on underneath, then after a few months graduate to riding on their mother’s back.

The hot pool and the mountain valley backdrop

Japanese macaques live for 25 to 30 years in captivity and 8 to 10 years in the wild.   They live in troupes of usually 20 to 30 individuals and their society has strong matrilineal characteristics.

There are around 100,000 macaques in Japan and they are classified as endangered.   They are widespread amongst the islands but do not range as far north as Hokkaido.  Thousands are killed by farmers very year, notwithstanding their protected status.  Other predators include wild dogs, mountain hawk eagles and possibly raccoon dogs.  They are also susceptible to habitat loss (forests).

Almost feeding time …

13th February: Nagano – Walking in to the Snow Monkeys

The bus dropped us off at the entrance of the Jigokudani Monkey Park.  I had just come from Tokyo with twelve other people.  This was the start of a wildlife and landscape tour of Nagano and North-Eastern Hokkaido with Martin Bailey, with whom I had voyaged in Antarctica.

View from the track

From the park entrance, we still had a walk in of over a kilometre.

Jigokudani ryokan and vent

Jigokudani thermal vent

Jigokudani is a thermal valley.  It has a resort (or ryokan) with a thermal vent on the other side of the stream.  I would think that the tracks you can see on the right are monkey tracks.

The sign probably says “If you are lost, ask the monkey”.

I’m somewhat less than an expert in Japanese writing though I can understand the Roman numerals.  I think the sign is saying “this is a thermal region and this is how the geology works”.

Chinese writing was originally an adaption of cuneiform from the Persian Empire, before the time of Alexander the Great.  It came to Japan around 400AD but ultimately proved problematic because the Japanese language is not related to the Chinese and the characters have no connection to the spoken word.  A Chinese friend once told me that to be literate in Chinese you need to know about 10,000 characters.  The Japanese have retained 2,000 simplified Chinese characters (kanji) and have supplemented them with two different syllabic systems, katakana and hirogana.  While it is possible to write entirely in katakana or hirogana, Japanese usually use the three systems in conjunction.  Although there can be ambiguity in written expression, there is no current likelihood of this system changing.

On the other side of the track, there were some monkeys eating snow.  Perhaps the mineral content of the hot springs flowing into the river makes the snow the best tasting source of water.

A young one who had been playing games with his friends, but they were too quick for me to catch the action.

The preceding images were of the trek in, in the morning.  Images of the monkeys in and around the pool during the afternoon will follow in the next post.  The following images are from the trek out at the end of the day.

View from track

View from track

View from track

Itinerary of Journey to Japan

I traveled in Japan in January and February 2012.

Brief Itinerary

Special Topics

Completed posts