Genki deska? by Alyson Hilbourne

"An iconic image we’re all familiar with – the bathing monkeys of Japan – is itself refreshed in this behind-the-scenes account."

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay contest


Genki deska?”
The red-faced monkey ignored me and continued to stare into the distance, unblinking, in a Zen like trance. Most of its body was submerged in a warm pool as it disregarded completely the bank camera lens we tourists pointed at it.
I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous. We’ve come across macaques before. In Thailand they raid bags and snatch ice creams from your hand. In Sri Lanka we had monkey bars on the windows at school to prevent them climbing in and wrecking classrooms. At Jigokudani Park signs advised against taking food into the area where the monkeys were. There was a bank of lockers for visitors to use. But apart from two macaques sitting on top of the drinks vending machine, presumably ready to fleece unwary tourists, these monkeys were placid, almost somnambulant in their movements, lulled by the warm water.
Jigokudani means Hell Valley in English and is a common name in Japan for thermal areas. One benefit of the unsettling seismic activity in the country is a ready supply of near boiling water that the Japanese use for onsen or hot spring bathing.
We walked into the park along a narrow snow-mud forest path. The heavy snow on the hillsides and dense wood deadened all sounds. Through the trees we glimpsed serow, a Japanese goat-antelope, a strange woolly creature, once hunted but now protected in many areas.
After paying the entrance fee, we descended a few steps and crossed a bridge to the man made pool beside a river where a dozen or so monkeys sat in a monkey onsen, grooming each other and studiously ignoring the visitors. It began to snow lightly and steam rose from the water. These monkeys are often called ‘Snow Monkeys’. It was easy to see why.
 The monkeys, macaques, are wild, but they are encouraged to stay in the area with free food. In winter they are happy to sit in the warm pool, but apparently in summer they need to be bribed to enter the hot water and food is thrown in.
After fifteen minutes of watching the monkeys do very little but pose for the cameras we wandered down to the river. There was less snow on the ground here, and adult macaques turned stones over looking for seeds, while the youngsters chased about.
We left the monkey park, returning along the forest path and took the bus to the nearby town of Shibu Onsen. The town has a history as a hot spring resort. Apparently in the past a warlord used the mineral waters to revive his men after battle. Today most of the bathers are tourists who stay in the ryokan, Japanese style inns that flank the narrow cobbled streets.
At Shibu Onsen

            Our evening’s entertainment was to don yukata, cotton kimonos and geta, Japanese wooden sandals, a meld of flip flops and ice-skates and stumble round town on a tour of the onsens. The shoes proved surprisingly difficult to walk in. The beautifully dressed Japanese ladies we see in Tokyo wearing silk kimonos move stylishly. My ankles rolled and twisted painfully as I negotiated the cobbles.
The ryokans give their guests a key, attached to a large plank of wood so you won’t inadvertently walk off with it, that opens the nine small bathhouses in the town. They are segregated, male and female, and once inside you are expected to observe the usual onsen rules such as washing yourself down before entering the water and bathing naked. The baths themselves are all slightly different. Most are lined with wood, which feels slightly slimy to the touch and only big enough for two or three people. One, that does not require a key, is larger and open to day visitors as well as those staying overnight.
Steam swirled around the bathrooms and the water temperature at one was so hot it was impossible to get in. Although entered by separate doorways inside the male and female onsens are only divided by a wooden panel so I was able to have a conversation with my husband through the wall.
“Hot, eh?”
“Too hot.”
“Are you cured? Shall we move on?”
             Mostly, however, the effect of the hot water was entrancing and I sat quietly, with a glazed expression rather like the macaques.
We followed other groups of tourists wearing yukata round the town. Some were just out for an evening stroll before or after dinner and were not using the onsens. The yukata is a perfectly acceptable dress code for dinner in Japan.
An old lady, bent over, but walking nimbly in her geta approached us outside one bathhouse.
Genki deska?” she asked, indicating the onsen behind us.
“She’s asking how we are,” I hissed at my husband.
We smiled and bowed slightly.
Genki desu (I’m fine),” I replied, stretching the limit of my Japanese.
She was delighted we understood and rattled off a stream of Japanese, punctuated with arm pointing and some polite bows.
We bowed back and scuttled away as soon as it seemed respectful having not understood a word. But I suspect she was telling us about the cures each onsen is supposed to give. One claims to cure gout, another eczema, other organic disease or neuralgia. Doing all nine brings good fortune. Each bathhouse is numbered and you can buy a souvenir cloth and ink stamp it with the wooden blocks outside each onsen as a keepsake.
            “Well, that’s my stomach problems cured,” said my husband as we tripped out of our fifth bath of the evening.
            “Mmmm, but you are rather red in the face,” I told him.
            Just as red-faced as the monkeys at Jigokudani Park a couple of kilometres up the valley. I hoped all their ailments were cured too.
            Genki des.

Alyson Hilbourne currently lives in Japan and uses the opportunity to travel as much as possible. She has had travel pieces published online and by the Oldie magazine in England. She also writes short stories, which occasionally are  published. She belongs to the online writing group, Writers Abroad.


  1. What a wonderful atmospheric piece and the monkey does look as if he's in a zen state! Love to see a picture of you donned in a kimono and sandals!

  2. brilliantly written, quirky story!

  3. Well written, atmospheric account of taking the waters in a far flung location. I wonder if the Macaques really do have better health because of the water. Some scientist should find out!

  4. The art of good travel writing is make the reader want to go there. That's you've done. I want to see those monkeys! Great picture.

  5. Love the little details - the slime on the inside of the bath, the thoughts about other macaques in the past, the rolling ankles and talking through the walls of the bath. Highly evocative, totally draws the reader in. Love it!

  6. Very interesting. I love the idea of a zen monkey!

  7. Great read! Enjoyed this behind the scenes story! Thanks for sharing!

  8. Wonderful post. it reminded me how much I miss this part of the world.


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