We first saw Japanese macaques (also known as snow monkeys) on the BBC series Life. We loved the idea of their unique way of life. Centred around their habitat of natural hot springs. Though there is a darker side to this considering the monkeys in a troop of low status, left outside the hot spring to freeze during the winter time.
The Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park offers an opportunity to see these animals in their natural habitat. Although be warned, getting here can be quite the trek and is worth devoting an overnight stay nearby.
It was surprisingly complicated to reach this park, and if you search online you will find loads of articles dedicated just to getting here and detailing the various options.
We had dedicated a night in Nagano for the sole purpose of getting up early the next day to head to the park. The park is just a 1 hour bus ride from central Nagano. This article from The Travel Mentor does an amazing job of detailing all the different ways to get here and the pros and cons of each way.
To summarise, the best way to get here from Nagano is to get the Snow Monkey 1-day pass. With this, take the express bus as early as you’re able to and hopefully time your trip well enough to get an express bus back. The train takes longer (and too many transport changes tends to lead to delays).
We were on a tight schedule as we had seats reserved on a Shinkansen to Tokyo that afternoon, so we had to be quite cautious of time. This is why we recommend spending a night. Doing it on a day trip from Tokyo or Nagoya means you really have to time everything perfectly and you’ll also be looking at 7 to 8 hours of transit time just to spend an hour or 2 in the park.
However, its still possible to do if you are committed to seeing them and don’t have the time to spend a night in order to do so.
One of the bonuses of visiting the park is the walk up the winding road to the entrance. The trail gets slippery in parts so decent shoes are recommended (The park itself also has some particularly slippery areas).
The trail is surrounded by woodlands and there are some onsens on the way. We didn’t stop at any, but if you had some time in the day it would surely be nice to spend a bit of time in one of these bath houses after you are done with the park.
The trail can be completed in 25–40 minutes, depending on your walking speed.
Finally, after your long journey full of complicated timetables and forest trekking you have arrived! Now you get the joy of watching the snow monkeys in their park.
The park itself is all centred around one hot spring that the majority of visitors group around with their cameras out. It can be hard to get in there and get a photo, so putting away the camera and just appreciating this unique moment is a good course of action.
The park itself is quite big, and has a few areas to explore, including a visitor centre that sells some nice souvenirs (all monkey themed of course).
There are other parts to explore in the park where you can see the snow monkeys. For example, there is a river that runs through the middle of the park that the monkeys relax and play around, and you will see them climbing up the steep rock walls.
We had a great time seeing the snow monkeys, but wish we had the option of arriving a little bit earlier so we could beat some of the crowds. Despite visiting during the low season, the park was still packed with visitors.
If you opt for the public transport and don’t mind a longer journey, you can catch the local train for most of the distance early in the morning.
You could also get a taxi or rent a car and be able to arrive when it first open. We think you would get a lot more out of it doing it this way.
Port Barton is a charming town to visit. The calmness and understated beauty of the area make it a great stop off point on the way to the more hectic destinations of Palawan, such as El Nido or Coron.
Having not known much about Osaka when I visited on a day trip a few years ago, I knew I had to come back one day and spend a little bit more time here. The first time I came I checked out the Umeda Sky Building (A futuristic building with an impressive observatory) and the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan (One of the best aquariums in the world). Both are great places to visit but to experience the best of the food and nightlife culture in Osaka you need to head to Namba for at least a couple of nights.
We recommend staying in Namba as you have easy access to the rest of the city thanks to the well connected subway stations. Namba offers great shopping and restaurants and you can get around easily by walking. Places like the river in Dotonbori, the shopping street Shinsaibashi and the over 170 year old Kuromon Ichiba Market.
If you’ve ever watched Blade Runner you’ve likely wanted to visit one of the metropolises of Asia to see the inspiration behind that films iconic art direction.
Osaka majorly delivers on that front and boasts some incredible architecture and cityscapes. In this regard it’s a photographers paradise and the most fun we had in this city was just walking around at night bathing underneath the electric neon glow.
The lights and neon signs around Dotonbori are surely some of the city’s best, and there is a great sense of energy in the air at all times of the day. At night, however, the neon glow paints the river and transforms the area into something else.
We stayed in an Airbnb a short short walk away from the east end of the river, and it was easy to walk to wherever we needed to get to.
Osaka is a foodies heaven and Namba is a touristy yet accessible part of the city to try all sorts of street foods. You will find plenty of street food vendors selling the ultra popular local dish Takoyaki (Octopus balls grilled in batter), often with massive queues attached to them at all times of the day. Watching the chefs make the balls themselves is part of the fun, and makes the wait a little more bearable.
Kushiage is another popular food to try here. Kushiage is essentially deep fried meats and vegetables served on a stick. Its that simple. You’ll have a shared container with dipping sauce, but be warned, do not double dip! Your enjoyment will be come down to perfecting your sauce dipping technique.
You’ll have to be prepared to arrive early at any of the popular restaurants or expect to queue for a long time. We arrived at the Michelin starred Ajinoya for lunch at 11:45am and waited over an hour to try their okonomiyaki. It was totally worth it, but you don’t want to spend all your precious time in Osaka waiting in a line!
When it comes to food in Osaka (and Japan in general) you will likely leave feeling like you have barely scratched the surface. Our 2 days here were enough for just a little taste and to learn that Osaka takes their food very seriously! This article from Migrationology is a great reference if you want to dig deeper into the food culture of Osaka.
Osaka is Japans second most populated city and is extremely well connected to the rest of the country. Most people arrive here by the Shinkansen in Shin-Osaka JR Station if its not their first stop, otherwise Osaka International Airport if they are flying into Osaka. Check out the the Wikitravel page for a comprehensive list of options.
We travelled to Takayama after Osaka by train, which involved a couple of changes on the way and took close to 4 hours. If you are heading towards the Japan Alps you can get to Kanazawa quicker as the Shinkansen links directly to the city.
Kyoto can be reached in 15 minutes by Shinkansen, Hiroshima in 2 and a half hours and Tokyo in under 3 hours. All incredible cities to visit and surely ones that are already on your list if you’re a first time traveller to Japan.
The Northern Japan Alps of Central Honshū is a region that can be enjoyed throughout the entire year. We arrived during Winter and were lucky enough to see this beautiful area covered in snow, which added so much to the experience. There are trade-offs to make though, for example, Kamikochi was off limits to us during that time, as the snow makes getting the area very difficult.
However, sitting in an outdoor onsen (also known as a ‘rotenburo’) with white-capped mountains surrounding you and the snow falling on your face is an unforgettable experience that we will always remember.
Takayama is a town famed for its old and traditional feel. Sometimes referred to as Little Kyoto, Takayama is a great city to explore by foot or bicycle. The best way to spend time here is to simply walk around the historic old town and try some of the regional specialties.
Takayama makes a great base or starting point for venturing out towards other areas in the Northern Japan Alps. An economical way to explore this area (without a car) is a multi-day ticket from Nohi Bus, a transport company that links up all the major spots in the region. You can make good use of this ticket by travelling onwards to Kanazawa or Matsumoto to continue on your journey across Japan (Both well connected cities with JR stations.)
We stayed a 5 minute walk from the train and bus stations at the Spa Hotel Alpina. There are plenty of restaurants a short walk into town away.
Okuhida is famous for it’s open air onsens and mountain ropeway. This onsen village is popular with local tourists and feels a world away from the busy cities.
A lot of the hotels here offer stunning views of the mountains with outdoor pools. We stayed at the Yamano Hotel in a traditional Japanese style room (known as a ryokan) and enjoyed a fantastic dinner and breakfast that were included in the room price.
Their outdoor onsen was breathtaking, and our first time stepping foot in it may have been our number one highlight of our entire trip to Japan.
It can be slightly difficult to find hotels in the area if you are searching in English and you may have an easier time using JAPANiCAN as we noticed there were a lot more results (with better prices too) during our search.
This area can be reached by bus in under 90 minutes from Takayama. The main attraction here is Ogimachi Village, a quaint little town thats easy to get around by foot. There are a few small museums scattered across town and some eateries. You can walk up to Shiroyama Viewpoint in around 20 minutes if the path isn’t blocked by snow. Otherwise, there is a shuttle bus that runs every 30 minutes from the town center.
We didn’t get a chance to, but you can stay overnight in one of these farmhouses. Seems like this would be a great experience as you would get the town to yourself after all the day trippers leave.
If the pristine natural beauty, excellently preserved towns and glorious outdoor onsens aren’t enough for you, you’ll be happy to know that the food in this region is varied and incredibly delicious.
Takayama continues the trend of offering fabulous beef. Hida beef is especially popular here, and you can find it in all forms such as burgers, croquettes, beef buns, gyozas and sushi. The most popular ways to enjoy Hida beef, however, is to simply grill it (2 minutes on each side) and eat it with some vegetables and dipping sauces. We ate at Suzuya Restaurant and accompanied it with some Shabu Shabu. Hida beef isn’t cheap, but worth the splurge if you’re in the area.
Another regional specialty that’s offered here is their Takayama Ramen, a deceptively simple shoyu broth with thin noodles, locally grown green onions and 2 slices of pork. We loved the simplicity of this ramen and tried it a couple of times while we were here. Tenaga Ashinaga and Menya Shirakawa, the latter which had a lengthy line full of locals (always a good sign!).
Here are some more great articles that expand on some of the food offerings in Takayama: A Gourmet Food tour of Takayama — JAPANiCAN, 9 Delicious Local Meals in Hida Takayama You Must Try — Tsunagu Japanand Stroll The Streets Of Hida Takayama With Delicacies In Both Hands! — Matcha.
After getting used to Japans amazing transportation, Takayama can take a surprisingly long time to reach. We came in from Osaka and it took us close to 4 hours with a couple of changes along the way.
Takayama, as we have mentioned previously, makes a great base to explore this region however. By combining your JR Pass and Nohi Bus ticket you can hop around to a lot of different cities.
You can reach Matsumoto in 2 hours, Kanazawa in 2 hours, Nagoya in 2 and a half hours and Tokyo in 4 and a half hours.
We continued on to Matsumoto for a quick stop over to see the famous Matsumoto Castle on route to Nagano, where we were spending thenight before getting up early to see the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.