Japan is home to the famous red-faced snow monkeys that steam themselves in natural hot springs high up in the mountains of northern Japan. I first learned about them watching movies and national geographic documentaries that showed these eerily human-like, creatures taking a steam. Here's what you need to know before making the journey to see them and why this was and will always be one of the peak experiences of my life!
The Jigokudani (translation: 'Hell's Valley') monkey park consists of bubbling hot springs and a snowy climate four months out of the year. Notably, the park is most famous for its native population of Japanese Macaques (aka Snow Monkeys). Each winter they descend from the surrounding forests to warm up during the colder months and enjoy the natural hot springs, the temperatures of which can reach above 122 degree Fahrenheit! These beautiful Macaques have long been fabled to be messengers of the Shinto mountain and river gods. Whether you're religious or not this is sure to be one of the most spiritual and unforgettable experiences you'll ever have.
How to get there:
(via train) Tokyo ----> Nagano ---> Yudanaka (via the Snow Monkey Express)
The Jigokudani Monkey Park is located near the town of Yamanouchi and the closest major city to that is Nagano (which is about 45 minutes away). This is also a great area for skiing and snow sports if you're so inclined. There are plenty of travel options for getting there and if you need help most personnel at train stations in Japan are extremely nice and can get you where you need to go. From Tokyo (or most cities in Japan) you can take the bullet train or 'Shinkansen' to Nagano station, then take a short walk (literally to the building next door) to what's called the 'Snow Monkey Express' (Nagano Dentetsu Line Limited Express) which is a local train that drops you off at the Yudanaka train station. You can take a bus or car from Nagano to the park as well but we were staying in the area for the night so we went on to Yudanaka.
Once we arrived at Yudanaka, we took a short walk (about 5 minutes) to our most adorable and quaint ryokan (a traditional, family-run Japanese inn), Tawaraya Ryokan. I can't tell you enough how amazing this ryokan was (more on that later) and highly recommend it. As the park is the main source of income for the town, most ryokan in the area have some sort of transportation set up where they can take you to and from the park. This is also a great area to visit because it's a tranquil mountain town and as much as I absolutely love Tokyo, at the end of the day it's a bustling, fast-paced city with a lot of action, so it was really nice to take 2 days out of my trip and experience the softer, more tranquil side of Japan.
Pro Tip: When going on any awesome multi-city trip plan at least one day or one activity that is slower and more relaxing. It helps your body and mind re-set so that you can continue to soak up what the city has to offer and is a great way to 'end' the trip so to say.
When you get to the town of Yudanaka and arrive at the Monkey Park, be prepared for a bit of a hike...a beautiful hike, but still a hike (maybe about 30 minutes). It's about a mile in but it's a somewhat narrow road that has an incline (we are in the mountains after all). Be careful and dress appropriately as it can be quite cold and slippery in the mountains especially during the winter months. I was wearing jeans with holes in them and just a sweater and was pretty cold to say the least. The park also rents winter clothing and boots if you'd like. The park is open year-round but its best to visit during the cooler months (November-March)- we visited in November and it was cold but not snowing yet so it was perfect. Each day the monkeys are fed in the morning then tend to bathe in the afternoon so try to get there fairly early to see all the action! We visited on our own but there are also guided day tours.
Once we got in and bought our entrance ticket to the park the hike was beautiful. It was a forested mountain trail and there was a moment where I looked up and the wind was blowing pine needles around, truly magical! As we hiked further in we started getting a bit anxious about whether or not we were going to see any monkeys. We finally saw one and were beyond excited! We probably spent a good half an hour on that one monkey and took about 100 pictures...Little did we know that a short walk further into the mountain would bring us even closer to the majority of monkeys bathing themselves. We got a great spot right around the hot spring and spent a few hours just watching them soak, play around, run back and forth and groom each other. One of my favorites things to see was the little babies that chased their parents or hung from their chest, while their parents ran around. I really can't describe how fascinating they were, some just sat and bathed, some cuddled and groomed and some even ran around the other visitors (these guys are definitely used to humans being around).
Do's and Don'ts:
If you go for a visit, you should be aware of the do's and don'ts. These are marked all over the park as well.
1) The monkeys are used to humans and not generally afraid but don't get too close and definitely do not touch or pet them. I can't stress this enough, they may seem cute but it could be dangerous for both you and them if you reach out and touch them. Cute but still a wild animal...
2) Do not look them in the eye for longer than a few seconds as this can be seen as a sign of aggression.
3) Do not feed them
4) Try to remember you are not in a zoo, there are no cages and this is their natural habitat, so we are THEIR guests.
After spending a few hours in the cold admiring these beautiful animals and taking about a thousand pictures, we decided to head out. The hike out was a bit easier and we rewarded ourselves with a light lunch in the cafe that was onsite in the park. It was surprising how good the food was, given that it feels like you're in the middle of nowhere. We had some of the best sushi and ramen here while we were in Japan. On our way out of the park we took a short bus ride (that runs every few minutes) back to our ryokan to enjoy a soak in our own hot springs that were onsite!
Depending on how much time you have in Japan I would 1000% recommend taking the time to visit the Jigokudani Monkey Park. This is something you truly have to experience for yourself to understand how magical it is. I for one will always treasure this day as one of the best days of my life and would go back in a heart beat. I hope this article has helped plan your trip, I'd love to hear about any of your experiences there as well!
Also, enjoy some of the 100's of pictures I took haha!
Grooming session ;)
There's one last thing I want to end on. When you come to locations like this, you're really entering into one of the few places we have left that have been fairly untouched. Although this is a park, it's relatively wild and untouched (beyond a few walking paths), so when you go make sure to be respectful, take what you bring with you, leave nothing behind and respect the animals that call this place home <3
Check out these other resources for getting to the park and staying around the area:
List of local ryokan accommodations: http://www.kambayashi-onsen-snowmonkeys.com/#Ryokan