The world's northernmost colony of monkeys lives near Wakinosawa on the Shimokita Peninsula in North Japan. It's a rather far-off place only accessed by ferry or by winding lanes over the mountains and along the rocky coast.
Even further in the mountains and further north, lies Osorezan, a sulphurous desert around a volcanic crater lake regarded by the Japanese as an entrance gate to hell. The smell of rotten eggs is disturbing and a yellow crust dots the rocky landscape. When we visit the Osorezan temple, heavy rain adds to the eerie atmosphere. Only two roads lead to hell's entrance gate (how fortunate!), both climbing over a ring of mountains covered in permanent fog. One is mainly for the pilgrims visiting this spiritual power spot from the next town with a railway station and bus connection. The other one only leads to a hot spring area in a mountain gorge.
The open air hot spring we have in mind, Kappa Onsen (named after a mythical water spirit), has strict opening hours for men and for women, and so we have to take the road to Kappa Onsen first (although this means shuttling back and forth), in time for the women's bathing time: in total, we spend more than two hours on the winding mountain road, feeling like on an endless auto scooter ride. Burp! And all that just to get a bath – which was worth it by the way.
Somewhere in these eerie woods, a shadow moves over the road and up a tree. This monkey must be the world's northernmost monkey, we decide. And the monkey seems quite surprised too, staring at us from the tree through the rain. A little bit later we also we encounter a tanuki (a japanese racoon dog), also a rare sight on Japan's roads. Tanukis can transform into human beings, but this one chooses to stay just a racoon. Or should it in fact be something else transformed into a tanuki? This is a strange place indeed…
We tremendously enjoyed the two days on the Shimokita-Hanto, and although it is out of the way and difficult to reach, it is definitely worth going there.
From Shinkansen stations Aomori or Hachinohe about 1.5 hours to Shimokita. From there a bus runs 3 times a day, only in summer, to Osorezan. To get further to Yagen Onsen (about 15 km more) you need a car. J-Net rent-a-car in Mutsu/Shimokita has good offers.