Today, we are playing National Geo — I mean Lomographic. You must have seen one of these before. Eyes closed, fluffy red-cheek monkeys meditating in a steamy hot tub surrounded by snowy mountains. That’s right, I’m taking you deep into Hell and find the Snow Monkeys of Japan.
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
地獄谷野猿公苑 Jigokudani yaen-koen
Japan, first leg of my round-the-world-tour, January 2013. All I wanted was to see the snow monkeys. But none of the Japanese I knew has heard of these animals. Luckily, I met Ralph, a young Swiss at my hostel, who happened to have the same idea. The result was one hell of a fun day trip, far away from Tokyo!
In central Japan, high up in the forest of the Nagano Prefecture, is “Hell’s Valley” (Jigokudani, 地獄谷). More than 800m above the sea, this area is covered in snow a third of the year. Cutting through this valley of steep cliffs and angular quarts, is the Yokoyu-river. Because of the natural volcanic activities here, boiling hot water has been erupting from the riverbed. It is this crystal clear salt spring that feeds local therapeutic baths, attracting tourists to the onsens nearby for more than a century.
All these time, wild Japanese macaques from the surrounding area have been watching closely. These are no ordinary monkeys. Living farther north than any other non-human primates, they can endure long and severe winters, and survive temperatures as low as -14°C. Then in 1964, one brave monkey came down from the mountain, dipped itself into a shallow spa and loved it. This daily bathing ritual then spread to the rest of the group, got passed down from generation to generation, and is found nowhere else in the world.
Ever since LIFE magazine put a snow monkey on their cover in 1970, these extraordinary creatures shot to international fame, and are now protected in the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. In a twist of fate, they are better known outside Japan. The majority of the visitors I met there were from abroad, which also means it’s easy (enough) to get to, with plenty of signs in English.
A few monkeys come down to bathe in Summer too, but it is during the bitter cold Winter months that this monkey soup turns magical. Back in January, it was snowing lightly and we could see flakes of snow on their fur coat. Whilst we were shivering in subzero temperature, the hot springs bath was teeming with monkey activities. Some were probably laughing at us silly tourists trying to hide from the snow and take photos at the same time. That hot tub was just shallow enough for the monkeys to stand in it. Most of them were lounging around by the rim, grooming each other and taking it easy. The highlight of my day was to see the little ones turning their back to the pool, hanging on to the rocky edge, then slowly lower themselves into the water, eventually letting out a pitchy sigh of relief. So cute!
For those of you who fancy bathing like a Snow Monkey, try one of the outdoor onsens right by the monkey hot tub. There’s something decadent and heavenly about snow falling on your face when you’re half submerged. The pools for humans are much deeper, so wild animals probably won’t be joining you. But with some luck, a brave one might come by and sleep on a hot water pipe next to you :)
Hope you’ll enjoy this day trip as much as I did!
The Snow Monkeys are about 3 hours away from Tokyo, making it a pleasant day trip from the capital. Basically, you can take a “Shinkansen” bullet train from Toyko to Nagano, then board a “Snow Monkey Express” to Yudanaka. After that, ride a short bus journey up the hills, followed by a 45min hike through the forest.
1) Take the Shinkansen from the JR Omiya Station 大宮 in Tokyo to JR Nagano 長野, host city of the 1998 winter Olympics.
80min (Nagano Shinkansen) ¥ 8000
Be sure to reserve a seat on this bullet train in advance, or you might have to stand all the way at peak hours.
2) Take the “Snow Monkey Express” from Nagano Dentetsu Nagano Station 長野 to Yudanaka 湯田中.
45min (Nagano Dentetsu) ¥ 1230
So Japanese-cute! They actually announced “Snow Monkey” in English on the train.
3) Take a local bus up to the mountains. Get off at "Kanbayashi Onsen Iriguchi
7min (Bus towards Kanbayashi) ¥ 210
Don’t worry about getting off. You’ll know.
4) Short walk up to the park entrance, passing through many traditional Japanese onsens.
5) A trail walk into Hell’s Valley along the Yumichi Natural Trail. You’ll find the monkeys and a visitor center at the end of it.
35min (2km through a pine forest)
Mostly flat, but the path also has uneven surface, steps and slopes. Not wheelchair friendly. VERY SLIPPERY during winter months. I fell on my arse twice.
Monkey Park Opening Hours:
- Summer 8:30 to 17:00 (April to October)
- Winter 9:00 to 16:00 (November to March)
- The park is open 365 days a year
Monkey Park Admission:
- Adult ¥ 500
- Child (5-12yo) ¥ 250
- Group tickets and annual passes also available.
My Snow Monkeys album
Jigokudani Monkey Park Official Website
Informations on Japanese Macaques
Snow Monkeys on BBC2
National Geographic Photographer, Tim Laman
Tips on shooting Snow Monkeys
Photo source: LIFE magazine January 1970 issue