With their gentle pink faces and thick fluffy coats, the snow monkeys have to be one of the cutest wild animals in Japan. I’ve encountered Japanese macaques in a few different areas – Kamikochi, Tateyama, Kyoto – but nowhere is comparable to seeing them at Jigokudani Yaen-koen.
Deep in the mountains of northern Nagano, a long way from the rest of the world, a curious group of monkeys have become international stars. Their rise to fame has been years in the making… In the late 50s, nearby ski resorts were developing and the monkeys that had lived in the area were losing their habitat. They got pushed back into what’s called a ‘hell valley’, an area full of steam and hot water rising from the earth. A local man discovered them here, and decided to establish the Jigokudani Monkey Park in order to keep the monkeys from entering nearby onsens visited by people. He built an outdoor bath specifically for the monkeys and over time they made it their permanent home.
In January 1970, a photograph of a monkey sitting in the bath was featured on the front cover of Life magazine. This was really the beginning of their fame. The 1998 Nagano Olympics then brought thousands of visitors to the area, and again the monkeys received a lot of attention. Now, people from all around the globe make the trek to this secluded valley to see the monkeys soaking in hot water!
During a trip to Shiga Kogen Ski Resort, I took a day off from snowboarding to relax and explore the region. Shiga Kogen is the closest ski resort to the Monkey Park, so I knew I had to go when I had the chance.
From Shiga Kogen, it’s a 20-minute bus ride to Kanbayashi Onsen, then a 35-minute walk to the snow monkeys. The walk, however, is no walk in the park. The path is mostly uphill and can get slippery as it’s covered in a lot of snow. Stopping to admire the gorgeous white forest is a good excuse to catch your breath!
Finally, the moment we’ve been waiting for! After what feels like the longest entrance in the world, the famous bath comes into view, crowded with dozens of monkeys in and around it. They go about their business, grooming each other, chasing each other in the snow and just relaxing in the water, without giving the humans a second glance. It’s fascinating watching them and their human-like expressions. When they hold onto the rocks at the edge of the onsen and tilt their head back, it really feels like they’re saying, “Ahhh, this feels soooo good.”
Two facts in particular make these snow monkeys unique. First, no monkeys anywhere else in the world live in such a cold climate. The region is covered in snow for 4-5 months of the year and the temperature gets as low as –10ºC. And second, they are the only type of monkey known to escape the cold by bathing in the natural hot springs. It’s not certain how this came to be, but soaking in the water is definitely now a big part of their winter routine. In the warmer months, they don’t tend to go in the water, but rather spend time in the surrounding forest.
Whether you’re in the area for a ski trip like I was, or just travelling through Nagano, the monkey park is definitely a worthwhile experience! It’s not free to enter the park – the price recently went up to 800 yen – but the staff keep it clean and safe.
For more info and to see the monkeys on the live cams, check out the official website >> http://en.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp