Above the hot spring the snow monkeys stare with jowled furry faces from the trees. Steam rises from the limpid water. The snow monkeys make no noise. They patrol the branches with arched backs, slowly. They are known to be the most intelligent snow monkeys in all Japan.
The hot spring pool has a certain discernible surface tension so the skin or surface of the water seems thicker than it ought, rocks slippery with algae line the hotspring or onsen as the Japanese call them. A diverted cold stream enters from one end. The water can be turned on or off with a great copper tap, polished green with verdigris.
The naked professors are arriving to judge the intelligence of the monkeys. There are three of them, all of great age and seniority. All slide their skinny bodies into the piping hot water, a neatly folded cold wet towel on their heads their only garb.
How can you judge a snow monkey’s intelligence?
The naked professors concur that it is difficult. They call for a round of hot sake brought by a trainee courtesan, which is nothing unusual. They drink the sake and replace the tiny porcelain cups on the lacquer tray with great ceremony.
They ask the courtesan, who is 20, what she thinks. She says she believes that intelligence is not about what you know, but about how quickly you can change your mind when you are proved wrong.
The professors are highly struck by this answer and call for another round of hot sake. It is brought by a young man wrapped warmly in a winter kimono. The professors ask him how one could judge the intelligence of a snow monkey. The young man sets down the tray and says he has no idea and bows deeply. Then he suggests that intelligence is not about being thought clever, rather it is about predicting what is and is not a waste of time. Intelligent people do not waste their time.
The professors make a few appreciative noises but they are less taken with this definition of intelligence. Nevertheless they call for more hot sake.
High above them the snow monkeys patrol the bamboo grove, heavy with snow. The sky above is as dull and white as snow. There is a Japanese proverb, “Even monkeys fall from the trees;” these monkeys, wisely, prefer to live over snow, a soft landing from a high fall.