Japan’s Snow Monkeys are a destination in their own right – with their home, Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park located about an hour away from Nagano (and a further 1.5 hours from Tokyo). It is a bit of a journey to visit these curious creatures – but its a great addition to any trip to Japan.
The story goes, these Japanese Macaques, or snow monkeys, used to frequent the villages of Yudanaka and Shibu and take over the public onsens – hot spring baths created to capture the waters warmed by the geothermal energy underground. Of course, the locals didn’t like their soothing, hot baths interrupted by all these Macaques monkeying around (and having seen them in their own baths, they weren’t the quietest of spa buddies either!). So, the solution was to create new pools for the Snow Monkeys in the hills of Yamanouchi so they wouldn’t have to venture into town.
To get to the Snow Monkey Park you walk through a beautiful forested hillside before finally stumbling on an open river area where the Snow Monkeys hang out. We were lucky enough to go on a beautiful autumn day – lucky for us because it was warm enough to hang out and observe the monkeys for a few hours – unlucky for us though because it was sunny enough that the monkeys didn’t really need to take a dip in their onsen pool to warm up. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying the experience of watching the monkeys in the pools, by the river and in the hillsides. It was amazing to see them interacting with each other, from curious babies and their overprotective mothers to wisened elders watching over their community as outsiders (us) gathered to watch.
Some tips for travellers: its easy enough to get to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park but its a bit more than a day trip so we stayed overnight at the Maruka Ryokan in Yudanaka so we could be up early to beat the crowds to the park. To get to Yudanaka, jump on a shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo station to Nagano and then take the Nagano Electric Railway to Yudanaka. We used Hyperdia (an app / website) to help navigate the Japanese railway system – its a must if you’re planning on training around Japan. If you have a JR pass, the trip to Yudanaka will only cost you about $10-15.