Every once in a while, you come upon something in your travels that goes beyond the ordinary, something that makes you grab your camera and thank whatever deity you believe in for the life that you get to live. For me, that moment came in Jigokudani monkey park in the Japanese Alps, when I stood face to cute, crinkled up face with a baby snow monkey.
I’ve spent the first two weeks of 2012 traveling around Japan, hitting both major and minor tourist destinations. In just 10 days, I’ve taken a rickshaw ride through Kyoto’s bamboo forests, had acupuncture needles stuck in my legs to cure “sluggish digestion,” and eaten sushi so fresh that it’s still writhing, And oh, the spa treatments.
Yet nothing compared to the snow monkeys.
I remember seeing photos of snow monkeys in National Geographic when I was a kid. It’s hard to forget such expressive faces.
What I didn’t realize from magazines is how close you’re able to get to the monkeys. Jigokudani has very few regulations concerning the monkeys, and you’re able to stand extremely close to the onsen (hot spring bath) where they bathe. I kept thinking that such a setup would never fly in the United States, where parks are more regulated.
Getting to Jigokudani, where the snow monkeys live, is not easy. From Karuisawa, where we stayed at the Hoshinoya resort for two nights, it took a two-hour drive to reach Yamanouchi, a small alpine town in Nagano prefecture. If Nagano sounds familiar, it’s because the Winter Olympics were held here in 1998.
Once you arrive at the Jigokudani trailhead, it’s a 30 minute walk through the snow-covered forest. Nagano is one of the snowiest areas in Japan, and the area had just received a dumping right before we arrived. Dressing warmly, with proper snow boots, is key to enjoying the experience. The hike into the park isn’t difficult, as the landscape is mostly flat. Plus, the anticipation of seeing the monkeys keeps you going.
The payoff came almost as soon as we entered the park. Several groups of monkeys were foraging in snow, searching for kernels of wheat that the staff scatters several times a day.
Snow monkeys are actually Japanese macaque, known in the country as saru. It’s easy to see how they got their nickname: No primate, with the exception of humans, lives further north or in a colder climate.
Walking down the hill, you come to the onsen where the snow monkeys spend much of their time. Some areas in Japan have baths where humans can sit with the monkeys, but within Jigokudani, the monkeys rule the roost.
The park, which has been open since 1963, houses 163 monkeys. The animals are a hierarchical species, and there’s usually one alpha male or “boss” as the park likes to call them. They’re considered highly intelligent. During my time at the bath, I noticed how human-like they seemed, with expressive faces and social interactions such as grooming and game-playing.
As you can imagine, the snow monkey park attracts visitors and photographers from around the world. I couldn’t believe how close tourists could get to the monkeys. At times, it seemed like we were overwhelming them.
There’s no time limit for how long you can stay at the park during its operating hours; National Geographic photographer Alison Wright, who went to Jigokudani a few days before we did, spent three hours there. I can’t wait to see her shots. The cold might dissuade you from being there too long. On the day we were there, the temperature was about 22 degrees Fahrenheit.
But the attention didn’t seem to bother the monkeys, who preened and posed for photos. One little guy ran up New York One journalist Val D’Elia‘s tripod. He’ll definitely be the star of her story.
Friends on Twitter have asked if the monkeys were feisty. Overall, the mancaque seem very mellow, especially when they’re taking their baths. We did witness a little horseplay between a few of them as they were scavenging for grain. The park does warn people not to touch the monkeys or try to pick them up. You’re also not supposed to bring food into Jigokudani.
Hoshinoya, the resort that I stayed in, offers trips to see the monkeys for $1,000 per vehicle. That might seem outrageous, but the daylong excursion includes a guide and driver, lunch, all the time you want in the monkey park, plus a visit to Zenko-ji, a Buddhist temple in Nagano City that dates back to the 7th century. If you have a group of 4, the price seems more reasonable.
A cheaper way to see the monkeys would be to take the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano, about a 90 minute ride. From there, switch to the Nagano Dentetsu line to Yudanaka station for another 50 minute ride. From Yudanaka station, take a taxi to the Jigokudani Yaen Koen trailhead. Admission to the park is 500 yen (about $7 US) for adults.
On all levels, Jigokudani lived up to the hype. I walked away a little more in love with Japan, with feelings of awe and gratitude that I was able to have such an experience. I hope that someday you do too.
This trip was sponsored by Hoshinoya, a line of Japanese luxury “neo-ryo” hotels and resorts, but my opinions remain my own.
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