Beyond the regular Tokyo-Kyoto-Hiroshima tourist route there is much to explore, and Jigokudani monkey park is one of those little gems that may not be part of the regular line-up of things to do in Japan. Yet only a 90 minute Shinkansen ride to the north west of Tokyo lies Nagano, a city of two million, which is often overlooked by tourists. But, my Japanese friend had other plans for us; we would not be part of the tourist crowd disconnected from real life Japan and its many oddities and quirks. So she introduced us to some monkey business.
Watch out for cheeky monkeys. Literally.
Just a two kilometre walk on a gravel and dirt foot path through the forest lies Jigokudani Monkey Park. On a very crisp spring morning in late March, we found ourselves scrambling over the icy patches, trying to avoid the muddy bits. Why hadn’t anyone told us it would still be that cold? We were eager to get our minds off the biting wind chill by means of snow monkeys doing a very Japanese thing: enjoying a good onsen.
Yes, bathing monkeys. Apparently it is not just humans that saw the benefit and enjoyment of all those naturally occurring hot springs in Japan; our furry little distant relatives did, too, en masse. Every morning, a population of over 200 wild Japanese macaques descend on the valley of the Yokoyu river, in search of a delightful spa experience.
And so here we were, having paid our small entrance fee, when it appeared… the first monkey. No doubt a narcissist, knowing that visitors would be swooning all over him with their cameras and iPads so close to the entrance. Such a poser.
A few dozen metres further, his best mate reminded our Japanese friend of why it were in fact a good idea to peruse the lockers at the entrance, by trying to snatch her rustling, colourful plastic bag. The monkey was quite serious about it, too, considering the speed at which he charged at her, and his very vocal disappointment when she ripped it away from him whilst reprimanding him in Japanese. Cheeky bugger.
A little further down we cross the stream over to the hot pool area. Oh yes, the monkeys got it all, even proper pools. And this is where a nature documentary just unfolds in front of your eyes. Monkeys around you, left, right and centre, jumping around playing on the boulders, hopping in and out of the pools, or being completely still, soaking in the hot pools, minding their own business.
It gets even better though. As if having a secluded valley with hot pools wasn’t enough, monkeys even get their snacks served whilst enjoying a good soak. Thanks to very caring park rangers, once in a while it rains cereals. It’s basically the monkey equivalent of having a champagne bubble bath.
Jigokudani monkey park: the practical stuff:
- Wear sturdy footwear on the path leading to Jigokudani monkey park. It can be very muddy or icy, or both, and you don’t want to embarrass yourself by slipping in front of our distant relatives.
- If you visit in the winter months, make sure you are dressed for very cold weather. There is no place to properly warm up in the vicinity, so bring your gloves, hat and scarf!
- Don’t carry food, even in a plastic bag unless you really want to lose it. It will be snatched away from you!
- There is a small entrance fee of 500 Yen.
- Opening hours are from 9am to 4pm in the winter (Nov-Mar), and 8.30am to 5pm in the summer (Apr-Oct).