Its position on the Pacific Ring of Fire has created thousands of natural hot springs in Japan that have inspired a national passion for bathing. And not just in the Japanese people.
At Jigokudani Monkey Park in the mountains above the city of Nagano macaque monkeys find relief from sub-zero winter temperatures in a hot water pool. I make the hour-long trek from the ramshackle spa town of Shibu Onsen to Jigokudani along a deserted forest track covered with several inches of snow that is still falling at a heavy rate. My reward is to spot six monkeys soaking in the small pool, while dozens of others scramble up and down in the snow on the hillside nearby.
The name Jigokudani means “Hell’s Valley”, a name that seems especially apt when I see the geyser bubbling a short distance away. The onsen sits in a tropical garden, heated by the water, and is just a short distance from the beach.
The harsh weather appears surprising given that Nagano is on the same latitude as Seville and San Francisco. Yet the winters here are severe and the macaques have become accustomed to spending their days in the hot pool. A young pair sit impassively, snow gathering on their heads as they warily observe the small group of humans watching them. A mother nurses her baby and two youngsters create a commotion when they face off, squabbling loudly before bounding past our cameras as if none of us are there.