Jigokudani Monkey Park

After a long day’s travelling or sightseeing (or for some of us – working), there is no better way to relax than to take a nice hot soak at a Japanese Onsen, where naturally forming hot spring water is pumped up into large purpose-built bath-houses for the enjoyment of Japanese and ‘Gaijin’ alike – but it seems we are not the only species to take advantage of this gift of nature.
Imagine, instead of travelling or sightseeing (or working) – imagine you have just spent the morning foraging for grubs and insects (we’ve all been there), travelling through thick forest on steep mountainous terrain, often in snow deeper than you are high, what better way would there be to relax then to find a naturally forming pool of hot spring water to soak your tired bones in while one of your friends removes ticks from your fur. Well for one group of Japanese Macaque monkeys this is exactly how they spend their days.
Jigokudani (which translates as Hell’s valley) is a region of the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park in Nagano, where the Yokoyu-River flows through and steam from underground hot springs rises through the cracks and crevices giving the valley its name. Steep slopes, thick with dense unforgiving forests surround you on all sides giving the valley an other worldliness – appropriate given that the sight of monkeys taking a bath is not something you get to see every day (or anywhere else for that matter – unless you’re on the set of pg tips commercial).
In 1963, story has it, a female member of the Macaques troop inhabiting the area climbed into a pool of hot spring water to recover some soya beans that were bobbing about on the surface, inadvertently discovering the pleasures of the Onsen experience in the process. Since then the practice has been copied by each generation – this particular breed of Macaque are well-known for their high intelligence and social learning – and the monkeys come down from the mountains to relax and groom each other and, particularly in the winter, get out of the cold. In fact the image of the monkeys relaxing in the hot water during the height of the winter season is so pervasive it has earned them the nickname “snow monkeys”.
Although very famous worldwide, thanks in a large part to photographs of the monkeys, the park never seems to be crowded. Unlike other popular destinations in Japan, where busloads of tourists and schoolchildren can dilute the experience, the snow monkey park has relatively few visitors, thanks in part to the narrow path that must be navigated to get to the visitor’s center. Although not a particularly difficult path it is well advised to wear decent walking shoes, particularly in winter when the snow can get quite deep.
The monkeys themselves are quite used to visitors and will gladly carry on about their business as though you weren’t there. Visitors are advised not to bring food into the park though – on the off-chance that one of the monkeys might take a fancy to a bit of what you’re having! They also advise against staring into the monkeys eyes as this might cause them to become agitated or aggressive – though why you would want to have a staring contest with a monkey that is just trying to relax is beyond me!!
Getting there
To get to Jigokudani Monkey Park from Matsumoto take the train from Matsumoto Station to Nagano (about 1hr) and then switch to the Nagaden line to Yudanaka (about 45mins). From Yudanaka Station there is a bus up to Kanbayashi Onsen (15 mins) and then it is a 30 minute walk through red pine and Japanese larch to the visitors center. The total journey cost is about 2000¥ per person including entrance into the Monkey Park.
Find the official Jigokudani website here – you can view a live camera of the monkeys from the site