No, not Micky, Davy, Peter and Mike. That’s the ♫Hey, hey we’re the Monkees♫ and a 50-year old reference to boot. The monkeys I’m referring to are the macaque monkeys whose habitat includes Snow Monkey Park in the thermal springs resort area of the Japanese Alps where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held. One doesn’t usually associate monkeys with Japan – especially Snow Monkeys luxuriating in hot tubs – but having heard tale of these Asiatic monkeys (a prehensile tail one presumes), my inquisitive nature drew me to their habitat. I guess in some sense I was Curious David.
The Journey to Snow Monkey Park
My lovely wife Karin (who I’m very grateful to call a willing cohabitant) and I decided we’d visit Japan. At least partially, because at 6’4”, I wanted to go someplace where I’d feel even taller. This may seem a peculiar criterion to some, but I’ve always enjoyed looming and/or towering and it’s much easier to tower in the Land of the Not Quite Risen People than it is here in the States.
In researching our journey I discovered we’d have to fly to Japan because the land bridge I’d planned on using to walk across the Bering Isthmus had vanished into the sea some 15,000 years ago. I have got to keep up on geologic events – even though many of them move at a glacial pace. Still, how did I miss that? So although this discovery was a setback, at least I now had my Berings Strait. As tour director and planning engine, Karin already knew this, but was wise enough to give me a long enough leash whereby I’d exhaust myself in frivolous research and then happily surrender to her well-planned itinerary. We flew non-stop from KLAX to RJAA (Tokyo) in only 11 hours. But with feedings, movies and pee breaks, it went by like 38 hours.
I’ll Fast Forward Here
Suffice to say, after a superb time in Tokyo we loaded ourselves into a high-caliber bullet train (the Shinkhasen) and like a shot with a muzzle velocity of 180 mph we arrived in Nagano – home to the 1998 Winter Olympics. There we rented a small car (a Honda Dust Bunny) and drove to Arishimaya not far from Snow Monkey Park where we stayed in our ryokan (a hotel with attached geothermal springs). From there we staged our visit to the park.
It was a harrowing drive since the Japanese purposely drive on the wrong side of the road. It was all I could do to stay on the right side (I mean the correct side), which was the left side. Only by repeating my mantra, “Stay on the left or die, stay on the left or die, stay on the left or die” was I able to navigate successfully. Making a right hand turn into a left hand lane while steering from what would normally be the passenger seat, required a paradigm shift so powerful, I suffered a brain aneurysm just processing it.
We arrived at our ascetically-appointed ryokan white-knuckled, wide-eyed and with our hearts fibrillating like a strobe light. We spent the night in our spartan room with few creature comforts and very little furniture. It wasn’t that the furniture was tiny, it’s just that there wasn’t much of it. We slept on what I guess was a WWII surplus futon. Either that or it was a laundry sack filed with old sponges. It was bivouackingly comfortable. And yet to think I was paying hard-earned yen for this experience made me feel like a stranger in a strange land. Next morning after a 12-course Japanese breakfast of which 3 courses were edible (who eats fish heads soaked in lye?), we drove the Dust Bunny to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park on the outskirts in Arashiyama.
This borderline rain forest was a verdant banquet for the eyes – a lush terrarium as picturesque as it was rain forest-y. Upon parking at the drizzly site, the polite attendant (everyone is genetically polite in Japan) informed us, “No monkeys today.” My garish Western tendencies took over at this point and I unaccountably launched into song: “Yes, we have no monkeys. We have no monkeys today.” Well it wasn’t like we were going to turn around and head back after planting our flag at the base of Snow Monkey Park, so we soldiered on. We were in Japan and had committed to exploring the terrain, powered by the 3 of 12 courses we had for breakfast. After parking our little Matchbox car in a tidy little spot the size of a Hello Kitty backpack, we began a magnificent half mile hike up the scenic river valley featuring a series of gorgeous falls, some charming pedestrian bridges and a clutch of beautifully dilapidated buildings long since abandoned. There was also a well-appointed ryokan, and thick stands of some kind of well-behaved pine trees that appeared distinctly Japanese.
Snow Monkeys or macaques (pronounced “mə-kaks”) are charming, elfin creatures living totally in the moment. They don’t exhibit a care in the world about the past or the future. They’re a lot like Republicans that way, but with a greater social conscience. There are 23 species of macaques and all of them eat each other’s head lice. They’re a lot like Democrats that way, but they’re much more public about it. An adult macaque is about 25” tall and weighs about 30 lbs. They’re similar to Peter Dinklage that way. Macaques live in troops, where the orders of the alpha males are strictly obeyed. They’re a lot like the 82nd Infantry that way.
Well now that we’ve examined the physical and social structure of these fascinating simian critters, I’ll now describe our interaction with them at Snow Monkey Park. Prior to the monkey gathering point, there’s a ranger station/gift shop where you pay a fee to enter the confines of the monkey park proper. Incidentally, I have it on strong authority that Monkey Park Proper would’ve been the name of the Beatles 14th and final album had the lads stayed together. In any event, past the ranger station is where the adorable chimps congregate and frolic in the naturally occurring hot tubs. Truth be told these are not naturally occurring hot tubs. They’re man made. Necessitated by the monkeys breaking into the nearby ryokans to sit in and luxuriate in the warming hot tubs during cold weather. These are not stupid monkeys, but they did prove a nuisance to customers who preferred to look into the sweet face of a human rather than the red ass of a baboon when bathing in the tubs. I’m also told the customers couldn’t get used to the monkeys picking lice from their hair.
To redirect the monkeys’ opportunism, an outside hot pool was built up the valley and away from the ryokans. This structure holds 30-40 monkeys and their umbrella drinks. It soon became the go-to place for trendsetting macaques to winter – at least that’s what the monkeys’ travel brochure said. But as this was the shoulder season and the ambient temperature was mild, the monkeys were disinterested in warming geothermal pools. So we contented ourselves to simply reconnoitering the park, buying a token gift and heading back to our ryokan for our own sensuous soak. As we passed back through the ranger station on our return trip to the car, an agitated park ranger breathlessly tramped into the lobby of the ranger station and somewhat ominously alerted us in imperfect English, “The monkeys…They are coming.”
When I heard “The Monkeys. They are coming!” it was very unsettling. The tone in which this alert was issued made me wonder if the monkeys were armed with torches and pitchforks. Or maybe they were just eerily malevolent, like the crows in Hitchcock’s The Birds. Having resigned myself to their absence, I was a little shaken by the unexpected turnabout of their presence. With the monkeys’ invasion imminent and panic setting in, I experienced my Planet of the Apes moment. I began to wonder about the motivation of these menacing apes. Although smaller than me they were proportionately much stronger and faster and maybe they had a score to settle, what with all these gawking tourists aiming their cameras at them, taking pictures without paying a fair wage, or any wages at all for that matter. I began to ascribe human traits to my fellow primates: were they in a fair or foul mood? Were they coming for the hot tubs, or were they coming for me? Who was looming/towering over whom now? Only Dr. Zaius knew for sure.
I tried to regain my rickety composure and peered down the river valley. In the distance I saw a trickle of monkeys appear. Soon a trickle became a torrent, till finally there was a flood of them. But was this mass grouping of chimps a murder of monkeys or a barrel of monkeys. Point is, it was raining monkeys. Soon they were everywhere – like infomercials. The wind picked up and I swear I saw our diminutive Honda Dust Bunny Float by. Did these boundary dissolving monkeys have me hallucinating? In the words of Piglet, “Oh, d-d-dear.” My faint heart was fibrillating once again.
But as with most fears, they were unfounded. It turns out I was a Monkeys Uncle after all. As I relaxed further, I realized these monkeys wouldn’t do anything untoward. My Planet of the Apes moment subsided as quickly as it had come. Such unruly behavior by a barrel of monkeys could not happen – it would be beneath the planet of the apes. These mirthfully disposed creatures sprang and skipped and brachiated like steroidal trapeze artists, up past the ranger station and onward to the gathering area. Adult males and females with babies clinging to their mother’s fur (mothers are always burdened with being the uber drivers in society – probably because of their life-sustaining onboard creamery) trekked over the river and through the woods (I won’t sing it if you won’t). The macaques ascended to their man-enhanced habitat that featured a feeding station (the real reason they appeared) and their own custom in-ground hot pool. My unruffled wife and I made our way out over the bridge and insinuated ourselves within their society.
We were now unwitting animals in their zoo. And they could care less. They had no time for supposedly sophisticated muggles like us who interpreted their primitive ways as an indicator they were somehow less connected to God. They were living their lives. We were journaling ours. They were experiencing their moments. We were judging ours. It’s not that we’re evil. We humans are just made that way – perhaps a little too self-aware for our own good sometimes. I think that’s what meditation is about. It’s becoming less judgmental and more just there with it. And yes I recognize that in analyzing my interaction with the monkeys in such detail I’m guilty of the very thing I rail against. Being a human is hard. Being a monkey…not so much. Wasn’t it Jesus who said “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven?” Yes it was Jesus who said that in Matthew 18:3. And I don’t know really what 18:3 means, but this guy Matthew seems to – it’s all New Testament to me.
And yet we humans who had brought the world refrigerator magnets and snow globes were now being snubbed by feral creatures for whom the answer was eternally “yes” if you asked the question, “Do monkeys sh*t in the woods?” These are jungle beasts to whom books hold no allure. And even if they did crack one open it would be valued more for its cellulose content than its storytelling. These George’s of the Jungle had their own agenda, completely divorced from humans’ ogling eyes and anthropomorphic speculations. One could almost hear the monkeys think: You muggles observe life, we live it. They were more interested in the seeds, nuts and banana chunks the whistle-blowing park ranger dispensed, than the idle conjectures of a guy who was pretty self-satisfied he could successfully drive a car on the wrong side of the road and sleep on WWII sponges.
And so we communed with these noble and naturally jittery beasts for a time. And after a protracted 30 minutes of observing their interactions and photographing their movements I thought, “Alright I get it: Your muscles are fast-twitch, your eyes dart about the terrain like a cat following a laser pointer and you find some kind of hierarchical joy in eating each other’s head lice.” But just as my superiority complex took hold, I realized judgments are nowhere. As a Buddhist monk bestowed upon us at a mini-meditation retreat later in the trip: “Reality is not actuality. You will eventually know your judgments mean nothing.”
And at last the event came to a close. Bidding adieu to the monkeys I wondered if they even understood French. I then bid them sayonara and still no response. They didn’t understand Japanese either – no one does except maybe the Japanese. So we just turned tail and reversed course back over the river and through the woods (don’t go there) where we arrived at the car that had not blown away after all. And in that gallant gesture men undertake when it’s not inconvenient for them, I chivalrously opened the car door for my wife upon which she immediately laughed. Turning my head towards the open door I saw I’d opened what in America was the passenger door, but in Japan is the driver’s door. What can I say – I’m not a stable genius.
As I unnecessarily reflect on the significance of my monkey business, I catalogue the take aways from this philosophical interface with my primate brothers and sisters. Take aways. What a hollow term designed to describe and even diminish my ultra-cool moments with the monkeys. We humans do love our categorization of events. It purports to reduce chaos, promote well-being and generally make the world more understandable and less fearful. That’s just the reality. But not the actuality.
In the future, which I’m sure will happen later, I vow to be less judgmental, more participatory and as much in the moment as a monkey. Until then I’ll do what I do best – observe, catalogue and write about greater things to come.