Monkeying around: Iconic snow monkeys a perfect pair with natural hot springs
Japan has a few iconic images and the snow monkeys soaking in the natural hot springs is definitely one of them. I’ve been planning this trip for two years trying to choose the right time. In my mind, I pictured a perfect scene: white snow lying thick around the hot spring, snowflakes falling onto the fluffy fur of monkeys as they soak in the water, and hot steam rising from the onsen. My trip didn’t turn out to be this perfect, but it was still worth every minute.
The world-famous Japanese Macaques live high up in the mountains of Nagano and roam free in their natural habitat in the forests of the Jigokudani valley in Yamanouchi, not far from the onsen towns of Shibu and Yudanaka. Jigokudani literally translates as Hell’s Valley and was probably named so due to the volcanic activity and a few steaming hot springs. The area provides a bountiful yet unforgiving environment for the macaques. However, the smart creatures have found an easy solution to ruthlessly cold winters: they stay warm by soaking in the onsen!
How did it all start? In the mid-1960’s monkeys were regularly spotted in the area, trying to squeeze into a small pool in a rock crevice where hot water bubbled through. This is why the nature-loving locals decided to build them an onsen pool which has been a success and a regular hotspot for the resident monkeys. Thus, Jigokudani Yaen Kōen (aka Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park) was established in 1964. The fascinating fact about them is that these monkeys live in large social groups, and each group have their “shift” for bathing in the onsen. They have an organized system and ebb in and out of the onsen once it’s their turn to enjoy the warmth of the water. It can be quite entertaining to watch their interactions. Accustomed to humans, the monkeys can be observed from very close and almost completely ignore their human guests. Naturally, it is prohibited to touch or feed them, and they warn you not to look them in the eye.
We arrived just in time for their lunch. Which also meant that they had zero interest in getting into the water. So much for that perfect shot of mine. In addition, even after the feast, they chose to just sit around the water, but not get in. Apparently, -1C is not cold enough for them. I won’t lie I was a bit disappointed, but at the end of the day, it was still an unforgettable experience to see these creatures up close and personal and watch them carry on with their daily life like it’s nobody’s business.
When is the best time to visit Jigokudani Monkey Park?
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is open year-round. I believe that the best time to see the snow monkeys is during winter (November-March), January and February being the peak touristy season. I’ve also heard that staff has to coax the monkeys into the hot springs in summer. These pages from the official Jigokudani Yaen Kōen website (en.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/) and Snow Monkey Resort website (www.snowmonkeyresorts.com) have additional information about the snow monkey park during each season.
How to get to Jigokudani Monkey Park?
If your time here allows it, it would be great to spend a night in Matsumoto or one of the nearby onsens and visit the park early in the morning or later in the day to avoid the crowds. There is a ryokan called Korakukan in the valley, which visitors will pass along the way to the monkey park. Other famous resorts include Nozawa Onsen, Kambayashi Onsen, and Shiga Kogen all located about an hour away.
Otherwise, it is possible to do a day trip from Tokyo, but it will be a very long trip. From Tokyo station take the Shinkansen to Nagano city. It’ll take around 90 minutes. From Nagano, you can either take a local transport – the Nagaden train to Yudanaka Station followed by a 15-minute bus trip to Kanbayashi Onsen; or take the express bus (tourist coach) to Kanbayashi Onsen. From there, there is about 30-minute walk to the hot springs (about 1.6 km which is mostly a flat ground with just a few stairs). You’ll have to walk through the village to get to the entrance of the park and follow the trail to the onsen. You can also purchase a The Snow Monkey 1-day-pass which costs Y2900 for the full day and includes all your transport for either option plus entry to the snow monkey park. Www.snowmonkeyresorts.com lays out the transportation options really well.
Jigokudani Monkey Park
• 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. (April - Oct.)
• 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. (Nov. - March)
Closed: No closing days
Admission: 800 yen