The Snow Monkeys of Nagano
Love hot springs, monkeys, mountains, and mountain monkeys monkeying around in hot springs? Of course you do! And the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano Prefecture, a little over two hours outside of Tokyo, offers some of the best chances to see snow monkeys doing what they do best.
Jeremy's rating: ★★★★★
Monkeys, guys — monkeys! I mean, come on, there's no way you can't love the macaques. They're cute, the park is beautiful, and the surrounding region is full of outdoor activities to make a longer trip even more worth it.
Jen's rating: ★★★★★
Nagano itself is such a peaceful town, up in the mountains, which was a nice break from the busy, city vibes of Tokyo and Kyoto. Just throw in some "I don't give a fuck about you" monkeys and you couldn't ask for a better mental getaway.
By train, take a Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo. The trip takes about 80 to 100 minutes and costs 8,000 yen; the trip is covered by the JR rail pass. Highway buses take about 3.5 hours and cost 4,000 yen. More information can be found here.
From Nagano, the fastest way towards the monkey park is with either the express bus (1,400 yen; 41 minutes) to Snow Monkey Park or the express train (1,260 yen; 44 minutes) to Yudanaka Station. Timetables and more information can be found here.
Just like people, the billboards read, sporadically placed along the winding mountain path. Above and around the signs thin trees towered towards the sky, dripping the last of their snow melt in the late March sun. The melt muddied the path, making us glad that the staff at our ryoken, a traditional Japanese inn, had insisted we leave our shoes behind and instead wear knee-high galoshes.
Our feet, particularly mine as I took overly excited mega-steps, sprayed mud and gravel as we quickly climbed the mountain skirting around the occasional slower traveler. We had no time to waste; it was past noon, getting towards an early sunset, and we were off to see the snow monkeys(!!!!) — if any remained on the ground. As another pastel colored billboard gently reminded us, Arrive early for monkey feeding. In the afternoon, they go back to the trees to rest.
The path wound through a portion of the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, known for its hiking, four months of snow a year, and skiing, towards the Jigokudani Monkey Park — for those metal lovers out there, Jigokudani literally means Hell's Valley, due to the steam and scalding hot water that spill out from the underground crevices in the area. That's some serious dope shit right there.
And even without monkeys, Jigokudani is still a stunning area to hike around, as the towering trees threw dappled light and the fresh air filled our lungs with an alpine exuberance. But even with such beauty, we were there for one goal and one goal only — monkeys!
Inside Jigokudani Monkey Park, I felt momentarily crestfallen. There were a good number of people all monkeying around with cameras, us included, but there did not appear to be all that many fuzzy primates. Up until, that is, we trampled gravel underfoot while running down a slope towards a steaming hot spring-fed stream.
There, in naked furry miniature, lounged small family groupings of monkeys. Without ever seeing monkeys up close, in their natural environment, it was hard to believe the idea that monkeys really could come close to having anything more than a passing resemblance to humans. But here, sunbathing on rocks, caressing their children, and breastfeeding babies sitting on their laps, were little fur-ball reflections of us.
Further upstream up the mountain was a sheer stone cliff face and a geothermal pool manmade just for the monkeys to lounge around in the cold weather. Snow monkeys rightly know that the best time to hit up that hot tub isn't in the summer heat, but is instead in the dead of winter when the air cuts into you and makes you wonder what the fuck you are doing outside with nothing on; until, that is, you take that first incredible step into the hot water and bring your frozen nerves back to life.
In the relative late-March heat, the pool was too warm for the monkeys to bathe in, but they still lounged around it, Narcissus-like, staring at their own reflections. Lounged around, that is, until another monkey decided to pull a prank on them.
All around the pool, the snow monkeys hooted and hollered as they chased and tackled each other down, asserted dominance, wrestled, or loudly groomed. Amongst the controlled chaos, we all gathered trying vainly to get the perfect shot (or selfie, in my case ... which was largely unsuccessful until the hike back, when a monkey was chased off the mountain by an angry gang. Once safe, the monkey posed exhausted and angry on a stump by my head).
As the monkeys went around their business, they paid almost no attention at all to the people crowding around them. How odd we must've seemed to them, as their big, hairless, lumbering cousins, watching in fascination as they did what they've always done. But we were uninteresting to them ... unless, of course, you had food in your pocket or a selfie-stick (which was previously banned from the park, due to the monkeys' unique fascination with stealing them from people and never returning them).
To get your own taste of the monkeys, plan on visiting the park between December and March. Due to unpredictable heavy snowfall, plan a multi-day window of opportunity during the days in the dead of winter. January and February as the best months to see the monkeys bathing, but March offers the best chance of not having to worry about the park being closed due to excessive snow.