Japan: Meeting the Snow Monkeys

Monkeying Around at Jigokudani Monkey Park

A snow monkey close up at Jigokudani Monkey Park in Japan. Greg Roensch photos.

By Greg Roensch
As I walked along the snow-covered path, I couldn’t have asked for better conditions for my first visit to Jigokudani Monkey Park. Heavy snowfall overnight had blanketed the area with a frosty powder that turned the entire forest into a Japanese winter wonderland. Now, with the early-morning sunshine peeking through the branches and the forecast calling for a day of clear skies, I marveled at the beauty of the late-winter scene.

Located at the northern end of Japan’s Nagano prefecture, Jigokudani Monkey Park is part of the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park. Jigokudani, which means “Hell’s Valley,” features steep cliffs, natural hot springs, and geothermal steam rising from cracks in the ground. Extremely cold in the wintertime, it’s also a world-famous destination for tourists coming to see the park’s large population of Japanese macaques (snow monkeys) in their natural habitat.

Snow Monkeys Everywhere

A huddling family of monkeys keep eachother warm.
A huddling family of monkeys keep each other warm.

Jigokudani Monkey Park is where you can come to watch snow monkeys eat and play, cuddle for warmth and clean each other’s fur, fight for territorial supremacy and fornicate (though not in any particular order). In the frigid winter months, this is also where you can come to see snow monkeys stay warm by sitting for long stretches in the piping hot waters of the park’s natural hot springs.

Many visitors make the trip to Jigokudani to watch the snow monkeys sitting absolutely still in the barely rippling waters of the steamy springs. Peering out with their large, deeply penetrating eyes, some of the adult monkeys look as if they might be contemplating the way of the world, or maybe they’re wondering about the state of mind of the people who come in droves to take in the scene.

Whatever it is, there’s something peaceful, serene, and wise about the demeanor of these soaking monkeys.

Shibu Onsen a great place to visit the snow monkeys in Japan
Shibu Onsen a great place to visit the snow monkeys in Japan

Overall, however, there’s nothing calm or quiet about a visit to Jigokudani. In addition to watching the monkeys sitting in the water, you can see many others digging through the snow for food, frolicking on the steep snow-covered slopes, shrieking and howling at one another, and engaging in an assortment of other simian activities.

Monkey fighting
Monkey fighting

Indeed, from the moment you set foot in Jigokudani Monkey Park, you’ll find yourself in the midst of a raucous and vibrant simian community.

The best spots for viewing the snow monkeys are either in the hot springs or down by the river. Be forewarned, however, that the area around the hot springs gets very crowded, especially with photographers looking to capture the “perfect shot.”

If you’re keen on watching the monkeys from one of the prime spots around the pool, I recommend waiting for the times during the day when the monkeys climb out of the pool to eat.

Hiking path in the park.
Hiking path in the park.

Many of the people crowding around the pool leave soon afterwards, which gives you a chance to snag a prime vantage point and wait for the monkeys to return.

More than Monkeys

Many people travel to Jigokudani for the day to see the snow monkeys and then rush off to their next tourist destination. Indeed, you can visit the park fairly easily on a daytrip from Tokyo. If you’re not in a rush, however, you can find plenty of other things to do in the area.

Nagano, home to the 1998 Winter Olympics, is the nearest big city to Jigokudani Monkey Park. If you’re visiting in the winter, you can enjoy world-class skiing and snowboarding all around the area. If you’re a summer visitor, you can take advantage of the area’s great hiking trails. And, regardless of the season, you’ll enjoy spectacular scenery in this area known as the Japanese Alps.

For fans of Japanese “onsen” (natural hot springs), the area offers many opportunities to soak to your heart’s content.

In the hot springs, or Onsen.
In the hot springs, or Onsen.

Where to Stay

An entire tourist industry has been built around the snow monkeys, which means you’ll have many choices when it comes to finding hotel accommodations. Many overnight visitors stay in Yudanaka or Shibu Onsen, where you can choose from a range of modern hotels or stay in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn).

The quaint village of Shibu Onsen, which offers some of the closest accommodations to Jigokudani Monkey Park, features nine bathhouses, eight of which are only open to guests staying in the village.

My wife and I were fortunate to stay at Senshinkan Matsuya, a wonderful ryokan owned and operated by Tomomi and Keiko Kodama. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect base for our trip to Jigokudani Monkey Park. Not only did they offer complimentary rides to and from the trainstation in Yudanaka, but they also shuttled guests each morning to the path leading into the monkey park.

A wise old snow monkey.
A wise old snow monkey.

Tomomi and Keiko were extremely gracious hosts who went out of their way to make us feel welcome. Keiko even prepared special Japanese meals that accommodated my severe gluten allergies. Our delicious meals at Senshinkan Matsuya were one of the highlights of our three-week trip to Japan.

Getting There

The easiest way to visit Jigokudani Monkey Park from Tokyo is by catching a bullet train (shinkansen) from Tokyo Station to Nagano (roughly a 1.5-hour ride). From there, transfer to the local train to Yudanaka (about 40 minutes). You can then take a taxi or bus or make other arrangements to get to the park or to your hotel.

Greg Roensch

Greg Roensch owns and operates a one-man editorial service company called Six String Communications. When not writing and editing for work, he writes short stories, composes quirky pop songs, and likes to travel.

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