Because of Japan’s high volcanic activity, thousands of hot springs are scattered throughout the country. Locally known as onsen, the mineral-rich water is believed to cure a wide range of ailments and diseases, from muscle pain to diabetes. Bathing in onsen has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, and more recently it has been adopted by another population: the wild macaques of Nagano prefecture.
The town of Yamanouchi is covered in snow for a full third of the year, making it the perfect location for Japan’s largest ski resort and dozens of indoor and open-air baths. It was in one of these open-air onsen that a very young monkey first learned to take a bath. The warm water was welcoming in the cold weather and other monkeys in his troop soon began to copy his behaviour.
“Oh this isn’t so bad,” I thought as we entered the tunnel. But as we walked further and further, the air became thick with black and eventually I couldn’t even see John in front of me anymore. My grip tightened around the edge of his jacket as he led us deeper into the darkness. I’m not a fan of not being able to see my own hand, but exploring a passage under the altar of one of the most famous temples in Japan is an experience I just couldn’t miss out on.
Nestled in the valley of Nagano city, against the backdrop of apple orchards and snow-capped mountains, Zenko-ji (善光寺) temple boasts a 1400-year history and an annual visitorship of 7 million. It is believed that if you visit the pilgrimage shrine just once in your lifetime, you will be granted salvation and passage into the afterlife.