Go face to face with the Japanese macaques of Jigokudani Monkey Park in their natural hot spring habitat.
Snow falls gently as I walk through the serene Kanbayashi Onsen (hot spring) town. It’s mid-morning, but the streets are quiet and empty save for the few people journeying to Jigokudani Yaen-Koen, or Jigokudani Monkey Park. Walking along tree-lined streets I pass piles of firewood, izakaya restaurants emitting savoury smells and inns with steam billowing from their roofs, and soon arrive at the park entrance. The winding trail leads me through snow-covered forests along the Yokoyu River and beneath the shadows of the surrounding mountains. I hear the monkeys before I see them, coos and yips intermixed with the gurgling of the hot springs. Emerging from the trees, the trail leads to bridges crossing the river and over a large, steaming pool bounded by rocks. Along the trail and amid the rocks, little furry yellowish mounds shake and stretch, opening their mouths wide while grooming one another with wrinkled hands and feet. These are Japanese macaques, commonly known as snow monkeys, and they are the main attraction at this park.
Located about an hour northeast of Nagano City, Jigokudani Monkey Park is nestled among the forests and snowy hills of the Yokoyu River Valley.
Since the 1950s, humans have been visiting this secluded area near Nagano to watch the crimson-faced macaques bathe in the local hot springs. During the winter months, the monkeys are drawn from the cold, snowy mountains to soak in the warm waters of the region known as Jigokudani, or Hell’s Valley. The troops of monkeys meander among their human visitors throughout the year, but prefer to stay in and around the hot springs when the weather turns chilly. Located about 40 minutes from Nagano Station by bus, and then another 40 minutes spent walking down the trail, the park attracts researchers, nature lovers and photographers to watch wild monkeys in their natural habitat. Visitors often report seeing Japanese serow (a type of goat-antelope), squirrels, hogs, deer, hares, mice and bats in the valley, while nocturnal creatures such as foxes, tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs), badgers, martens, minks and even flying squirrels are known to frequent the area at dusk.
Most travellers visit the region in the winter, when the monkeys frolic and play in the water, but locals recommend visiting the park all year round. Monkeys often come down from their mountain respite to enjoy treats left by the park wardens, and romp with one another to the delight of their human guests. Flowers and cherry trees bloom along the river in the spring and summer, while apples, peaches, grapes and blueberries ripen in the local orchards during the autumn months. Bicycling is a popular activity in the area, and you’ll often see locals and tourists cycling from onsen to onsen, past farm fields, through valleys and along hiking trails. Nestled between ski resorts, the region is blessed with many onsen in the nearby towns: Kanbayashi, Shibu and Yudanaka.
As I leave the monkeys behind, I can still hear them calling out to one another to return to the balmy hot spring. As I turn back and take one last photo, my foot slips and my boot fills with snow. Regaining my balance, I decide to follow their lead and have a soak in a hot spring on my way back. A warm and toasty end to an enchanting day.