Snow Monkeys in Japan — Two Perspectives

I was recently in Nagano, Japan. When someone I met there told me about a place called Snow Monkey Park, which has both hot springs and monkeys, I was immediately sold.

I looked up some pictures of this place, and it looked incredible. People bathing in hot springs with monkeys!

After a short train ride and a bit of a hike I arrived at the park. As promised, it was teeming with incredibly cute wild Japanese macaques, as well as the expected camera-wielding tourists.

While walking around I noticed how I, just like everyone else, spent most of my time there trying to get a good shot of the monkeys.

People didn’t come because they liked it, they came here to take pictures that made it look like the kind of place you’d want to go.

And it looks just like that. But it’s not. The monkeys are wild, but their habitat is far from it. The rock pool filled with hot spring water? That was built especially for the monkeys. In fact, they were building an extension to it while I was there.

Few of the pictures of this place online include the workmen, or any of the pipes transporting water in and out of the pool. Because those don’t make it look like the kind of place you’d want to go.

So everyone who goes there goes to great lengths to get nice shots which don’t feature the workmen or the pipes. These shots then make other people want to go.

When those people get there they secretly feel a bit cheated, but are forced to keep up the illusion because OH MY GOD IS THAT A MONKEY SPA?! So cute!

The Japanese macaque traditionally builds its nest in the slightly warmer areas surrounding generators

It’s not that big a deal, but it’s kind of stupid how we get trapped in this cycle. And it’s a shame, because there’s so much natural beauty in the surrounding area. In fact, I enjoyed the walk to the park a lot more than the park itself.

But somehow an endless stream of people will pay to hang out around other people just so they can take pictures that make it look like they had a great time.

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here. Something about Instagram maybe, or the unfortunate incentives in a world in which social media takes centre stage, making it more important to look like you’re having a good time than to actually have a good time?

Anyway, Japan is great. And deep-fried snow monkey breast is delicious!

Ok, not really. Well it might be, but I didn’t eat any.

If you do ever go to the snow monkey park, try the noodle place next to the station. The tempura soba is great 🙂

Two Weeks In Italy

A Brief Broneymoon

After a long drive, we arrived at Bassetto hostel late at night to find a room full of people and at least as many bottles emptied of wine.

It was the kind of place where everyone had a story. Something they were running away from, trying to hold on to, or trying to find.

As we talked to the others, we got to know their stories. It was like an episode of Lost, except the characters were real and the stories were well written.

We all shared travel experiences. One of the girls, Kristin, spoke about a beautiful B&B in a different part of Italy where she’d stayed with a welcoming family. The father, Enrico, was a great guy. His girlfriend had studied astrophysics, and recently spent a day meticulously placing hundreds of tiny fluorescent stickers on the bedroom ceilings in the places where the stars would be. Staying there was magical, like sleeping outdoors.

The others’ stories were even more interesting. A newly qualified doctor with an endless collection of completely implausible anecdotes. A super social ex-heroin addict. A guy who got divorced, sold his house and all his possessions, and was travelling until his money ran out. These were the people we’d be spending the next few days with, at Bassetto hostel.


Bassetto is a regal complex reminiscent of a castle, enveloped by huge grounds. The kind of place where, when it gets dark, you go ghost hunting. After it was built in the 13th century, it was inhabited by monks for hundreds of years, the cellars producing vast quantities of wine. Increased competition and the introduction of an official wine classification in the mid 1900s put an end to Bassetto’s wine business, and it fell into disuse.

After a short stint as a tobacco farm, the upper floors were converted into a guesthouse. The cellars remained empty. Mostly.

Midnight exploration of the underground caverns yielded some bottles of wine which were hundreds of years old.

As we went deeper into the cellars, the air got thicker and the room around our torch got darker. We pulled aside a curtain and entered a narrow tunnel. Suddenly someone was running.

“Did you feel that? This isn’t right. We have to leave!”

We ran through the tunnel, past the curtain, and into the open air. After we caught our breaths and recovered in the hammocks outside, we went up to the guesthouse and tried to get some sleep.


We left Bassetto, but it never really left us. We had gelato in Orvieto, rented a boat in Amalfi, explored ruins in Pompei, hiked up a mountain in Abruzzo, got sick on seafood in Rimini, and added another country to our list by having lunch in San Marino.

A few weeks and a thousand miles later we arrived in Modena for what were to be the last two nights of our trip. On our second day there we had lunch with the owner of the B&B and his family.

As we were eating, the owner’s girlfriend, the mother of one of the children, asked us if we’d noticed anything strange in our room the night before.

“No…”

“Nothing? ”

“…”

“What about after you turned out the light?”

“Erm. No? Wait… What did you say you studied?”

“Astrophysics.”

Thanks for a great few days, Enrico and Antonella.

Sleep under the stars: Selvatica 50 B&B, Nonantola.

Sleep, if you can: Fattoria Bassetto

Secrets of Bagan: City of Two Thousand Temples

Bagan is the highlight of the Myanmar tourist trail. An ancient city once containing 4000 temples (2200 remain), built between the 11th and 13th century AD, Bagan has a lot to offer. The most popular things to do in Bagan are to rent a bike or horse and cart to explore these temples, and to watch the sun set over the fields full of temples from the top of the ever-busy Shwesandaw Pagoda.

Sitanagyi Paya

On our second night in Bagan we were out to find a temple we could climb to get a good view of the sunset, without being squeezed in among a mass of people. Our search brought us to Sitanagyi Paya, a few km south of New Bagan. Constructed in the 13th century AD, this temple seemed perfect for us: while we couldn’t find the usual grand entrance containing stairs to the top, there was some bamboo scaffolding going up the side of the temple. As we climbed up the scaffolding a local man stopped us and told us that climbing was not allowed — but there was a way in.

He brought us to a small window in the side of the temple, which he said gave access to a network of tunnels covering the whole of the temple, and led us inside.


Window to the inside

The inside was pitch black and felt like a very narrow cave filled with almost unbearably dense, dust-saturated hot air. He drew a map of how the tunnels were laid out and explained the route we would take. Following him further inside, I became very aware of the immense weight of the temple towering over us. The guide (who is there daily and maintains the temple) was extremely friendly and concerned for our well-being as he led us on, checking with every step that we were ok and happy to go on further.


Our guide’s map and one of the crawl spaces between tunnels

As we adjusted to the darkness in the temple and shone our torches around, we noticed the various forms of wildlife residing there. Our guide quickly put us at ease and assured us that neither the cockroaches, spiders or bats bite humans and demonstrated this by taking one of the spiders in his hand and letting it crawl off.

We entered several different tunnels separated by smaller crawl spaces, as the light from the small window to the outside faded away and the air became even more stifling. As we entered new spaces the bats would fly within inches of our faces— again our guide assured us that they would not get any closer.

Bats

The tunnels themselves had been entered and ransacked by the Japanese during WWII, leaving little of interest other than a headless statue of the sitting Buddha. Despite this the whole experience certainly made this the most memorable temple visit for us in the whole of Bagan, and we would highly recommend it.



A few more general tips for Bagan

  • Though we were reluctant at first, we really enjoyed the half-day horse and cart tour we did. It cost us $12, and allowed us to see all the main temples in a short time while being out of the heat for most of it. Do take care when picking a driver; the first one we spoke to seemed very loud and aggressive and turned out to be drunk.
  • Some people rent bicycles, but the E-bikes (bikes with an electric motor) offer the same freedom, are not much more expensive, and won’t tire you out. We rented ours from Than Dar in New Bagan (061 65272, 09 256228575). The battery lasted for about half a day; when it ran out we just called them and they came to replace it at no extra charge.
  • Be Kind To Animals The Moon in Old Bagan is a great restaurant with a wide range of vegetarian food and lots of great fruit shakes,. We also liked Pwint Mar Lar in New Bagan, which serves local food in large portions.
  • Buddhist temples require you to remove footwear upon entering. Wear shoes that you can easily slip on and off.
  • Check out other resources on the web — I would recommend George and Heidi’s blog and Phil’s blog.

Our friendly cart driver by the full moon