Marvels, monkeys and oddities: unveiling Japan's quirkier side

Join writer Mark Dapin on a journey to discover the snow monkeys, cough-lolly flavoured snacks, sumos and samurai oddities of Japan's captivating and quirky side.

By Mark Dapin

You’d need a heart of ice not to fall in love with the snow monkeys of Jigokudani Monkey Park in Japan. They are as cute as grandchildren – although their wizened faces look more like grandparents – and as photogenic as, well… monkeys in snow.

When nearby macaques began to seek winter warmth and comfort in the onsen (hot springs) at an inn in the mountains in Nagano Prefecture, the local community decided to build them a spa of their own – possibly for reasons of hygiene.

Various signs in the park indicate areas that are reserved for either humans or monkeys, but the monkeys don’t take much notice of them. At feeding time, hundreds of macaques swarm down from the hills, through the tourists and photographers and towards their onsen.

The snow monkeys are sublime.

When you leave them, your heart melts.

Stores in the park sell some curious souvenirs (I bought my brother a pair of snow-monkey underpants for his 57th birthday) and excellent snacks. The hot apple pies at Jigokudani are triangular pieces of paradise – although, obviously, the Japanese Alps are a long way to go for an apple pie.

The snow monkeys live and bathe on the edge of the snowfields of Hakuba, an increasingly popular destination for Australian skiers.  

Skiing in Japan is not (quite) as intimidating as it sounds. There are English speakers working everywhere. While getting your bearings can be difficult in Japan, mountains are among the easiest places to find your way around, as you can only go up or down. But remember: the older you are, the harder you fall.

Off piste, Japanese skiers, like snow monkeys, prefer to relax in an onsen. If you choose to join them, be aware that you will be expected to take off all your clothes and sit with a cloth on your head.

I think this is some kind of practical joke.

Embrace Tokyo's hustle and bustle, cosplay and cat fashions

Most holidays in Japan begin in Tokyo, the confronting but fascinating national capital. Crowds in the central districts of Tokyo are Grand Final-sized at rush hour (which is more or less every hour). Public transport is clean but crowded. Buses and coaches are cramped, and you are likely to have to stand and sway on the Metro.

Make sure you visit the Imperial Palace, Sensoji Temple and Meiji Jingu Shrine. The complex of galleries around the Tokyo National Museum is a great place to learn about the past, but you can only get a handle on the present by battling through the streets and people-watching.

The city is a crazy labyrinth of shops and bars and shrines, with a few citizens cosplaying superheroes among thousands dressed as their mild-mannered secret identities. There’s also a surprising number of young women who appear to think they are cats.

Signage shimmers, billboards blare, images dance. Most people seem to be eating or drinking, but nobody except sumo wrestlers is noticeably overweight – which, I guess, might contribute to the appeal of Japan’s national sport.

If you can’t get a ticket to the sumo wrestling – and tournaments are often booked out – try lunch at the Sumo Show and Experience at a restaurant in Sumida City, where diners watch a demonstration of sumo training methods and a mock bout, and are then invited to take on a retired wrestler themselves (spoiler: the sumo don’t try very hard; it’s all about the photo).

On the way to the restaurant, you might, like me, stumble upon the Museum of Business Cards. If you do, you will be among very few visitors to this rather humble establishment, which contains more business cards than the average museum but fewer than the average financial-planner’s wallet. The staff will be welcoming but mystified as to what you are doing there.

As well as sumo, I enjoyed a two-hour Ninja-Samurai Experience in Tokyo with my son. Although I do not feel as though I am now a fully trained assassin, I can recommend it as a father-son bonding experience (and another source of great pictures).

Don't get lost in translation devices

It’s cliché, I know, but a lot gets lost in translation in Japan. In order to overcome the inevitable misunderstandings that arise, many Japanese tourism-industry workers carry handheld translation devices.

They function like this: a foreigner speaks into the microphone and the machine translates and transcribes their words into written Japanese; the machine’s owner then reads the Japanese script, frowns, confers with his mate, and offers a reply in spoken Japanese that is translated and transcribed into English by the machine.

The process is slow, painstaking and far from foolproof.

You might ask where to catch a bus and be told how to catch a fish, for example.

Handheld translation devices abound - watch out where you end up.

It’s a two-hour-and-10-minute journey by wondrous (but not especially spacious) bullet train from Tokyo to the historic former capital, Kyoto, where you might catch a glimpse of a geisha in full oshiroi make-up and hikizuri kimono flitting between timber machiya townhouses (well, I did, anyway).

A highlight of Kyoto is its Zen gardens, which appeal to reluctant horticulturalists like me as they are largely composed of rocks and require little actual gardening. It is surprisingly calming to sit in silence and stare at different shaped rocks – and much less stressful than mowing the lawn.

And the food ...

Most Japanese food is now familiar to Australians. For less adventurous travellers, chicken yakitori at an izakaya bar is usually a safe (and delicious) bet.

Hotels can be inflexible and if you don’t book the set dinner (which might be Italian, Japanese or French) you might not get anything to eat (it might also be worth mentioning that I’ve been refused entry to hotel pools in both Tokyo and Kyoto because I have tattoos).

If you’re watching how much you spend – or if you just like going into shops – it’s worth buying snacks from a convenience store. This is particularly true if you feel a craving for a pancake in a bag, a container of coin-sized crabs, a cough-sweet flavoured KitKat or octopus in caramel.

However, even hardened lovers of convenience-store offal-hotpot stew rice balls might want to stick to Western breakfasts – which, curiously, often include a side of hot chips.

Watch for the Japanese breakfast chips ...

Citro travel tip:

Japan has plenty to see and do - visit Travel Japan for inspiration. Ski season in Japan runs from December through to April. Jetstar usually offer cheap flights from Australia.

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