Japan in Jan: Snow Monkeys

by Chris on January 12, 2012

All my life, I’ve wanted to see a snow monkey. The saga of how we found them, in the mountains near Nagano, Japan.

snow monkey in a pool, Japan

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.

Yashiro Shrine, Kyoto

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.

Snow monkey in the snow, Japan

Yet nothing compared to the snow monkeys.

Snow monkey looking up, Japan

I remember seeing photos of snow monkeys in National Geographic when I was a kid. It’s hard to forget such expressive faces. 

Snow monkeys enjoying the hot pools, Japan

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.

On the trail of the snow monkey, Japan

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.

Bundled up and looking for snow monkeys, Japan

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.

Snow monkeys digging in the snow for food, Japan

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.

A snow monkey in the wild, Japan

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.

Snow monkey on the edge of a pool, Japan

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.

Snow monkeys hanging out, Japan

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.

 Photographers taking pictures of snow monkeys, Japan

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.

Wild snow monkeys, Japan

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.

snow monkey climbing a tripod, Japan

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.

Baby snow monkey, Japan

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.

Pair of snow monkeys, Japan

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.

Mother and baby snow monkey, Japan

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.

snow monkey family, Japan

 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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| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Carole Terwilliger Meyers January 12, 2012 at 6:49 pm

I LOVE the snow monkeys! I so envy you getting to visit them in person, and really enjoyed the details of your story. Did you know that you can watch the snow monkeys LIVE on a webcam. Check it out http://webcamtraveler.blogspot.com/2012/01/snow-monkeys-japanese-macaque.html

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Angela January 12, 2012 at 11:28 pm

Look at them! They are really posing for the cameras! They look lovely, their hands could be easily human hands, a bit less hairy :P

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Kent @ No Vacation Required January 13, 2012 at 5:59 am

The “cute” factor is through the roof.

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Angie Orth of Angie Away January 13, 2012 at 10:40 am

SO CUTE! I didn’t even know these little guys existed. Adding to the travel list…

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cailin January 13, 2012 at 7:25 pm

That has to be one of the coolest things ever!!! They are so cute, its crazy how they bathe like that and awesome that you can get so close!
Now I have another thing to add to my bucket list ;)

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Sherry January 14, 2012 at 2:56 am

I’ve typically been afraid of monkeys as they move so fast and are often so curious. Though these are cute, at least in photos. I love that they are enjoying the bath; so human-like.

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Laurel January 15, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Fantastic photos! I’m unbelievably jealous! I LOVE primates and would love to see these guys in person.

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Chris January 15, 2012 at 11:45 pm

You know, I’m actually not a primate person. I’m drawn more to big cats. But I couldn’t resist these little guys!

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Linda January 16, 2012 at 12:15 am

Beautiful shots.
Love their curiosity.

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Shirlene from Idelish January 16, 2012 at 2:19 am

We were there as well and enjoyed our time there with these cute primates! Too cute!

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cheryl January 16, 2012 at 8:21 am

They are soo sooo adorable and cute! I’d love to hang out with these guys for a few hours.

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The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen) January 16, 2012 at 8:28 am

Love this post — my favorite photo is when the monkey is climbing up the tripod! Looks like I’ll have to add Japan to my list of places to have winter snow-shoeing adventures!

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Sophie January 17, 2012 at 3:32 am

Adorable! Reason enough to go back to Japan to see these lovely animals.

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Jade - OurOyster.com January 20, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Oh wow that looks amazing! A little while ago, my only impression of Japan was of Tokyo and shopping! But now, as I learn more and more, I really REALLY want to visit Japan!

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Camels & Chocolate January 26, 2012 at 11:05 am

I traveled with Alison and Val to Svalbard three years ago! Fun gals!

Also, I was super bummed I didn’t have a chance to make it out and see the monkeys in November. So cute.

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Kirsten February 4, 2012 at 7:00 pm

I am DYING to visit this part of Japan!!!! Thank you for sharing the pictures.

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Chris February 6, 2012 at 9:06 am

Kirsten – You’d love it. The monkeys are amazing. Really worth the schlep out of the way to get there.

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Bijaya Ghimire December 24, 2012 at 12:21 pm

very good pictures. I live near a monkey temple (swoyambhunath stupa) in Kathmandu and see hundreds of monkeys each day but did not know about snow monkeys. Amazing post for me.

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