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Jigokudani Snow Monkey Onsen Park

SNOW MONKEYS? IN A HOT SPRING?

Welcome to Jigokudani Onsen in the Japanese alps, home to these wonderful primates! I’m so excited to share these photos with you. Prior to visiting Japan, I had looked around for “season-specific” events and festivals. Visiting the snow monkeys (technically not monkeys btw, but Japanese macaques) was top of that list! The macaques spend the cold Winter season hanging out in this onsen.

Let’s back up a minute – onsen are Japanese hot springs which form natural baths, and the Japanese love them for their relaxation and purported healing qualities. Using an onsen is quite a tradition, and there are many onsen towns dotted around the country (especially in the Japanese alps).  I actually visited my first one on this day. It was quite an experience to see macaques in the day hanging out in a hot spring, and then a few hours later find myself in a similar position sat in an outdoor hot spring and watching the snow fall!

MACAQUES

Macaques are taking on a unique position in my life. It’s been a couple of years since I got engaged and was swarmed by Barbary macaques and a few months since I was “adopted” by a baby one that bit me. I actually went to Jigokudani with the same fucked up fingernail from my previous macaque encounter! The Japanese macaques are known for their bright red little faces and their super fluffy fur. They almost look like little snowsuits! They are a unique species; very intelligent, can develop different “accents” in different regions (much like the Japanese people and their endless local dialects), and have developed the practice of washing and seasoning their food. Youngsters have been seen rolling snowballs for fun as well!

Macaques are very important in Japanese culture; the original “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys are actually Japanese macaques. It was amazing to get to see these animals just going about their business, grooming each other, searching for food, and washing themselves. Weirdly, I was again swarmed by a baby one who held onto my leg, looked at me, and then SNEEZED and rubbed it’s litle face. It was so adorable. I don’t think you can have a baby monkey sneeze on you without undergoing some kind of personal change.

Jigokudani itself was also an absolutely beautiful park. I’m not the kind of person who will often go somewhere due solely to the beautiful scenery; but even before I had reached the macaques I was in awe of the breathtaking views. To reach the onsen park, you’re required to walk around the side of a mountain. It’s a 30 minute walk through giant trees, softly falling snow, gentle creeks and astonishing views. Even if you visit during a monkey-less time of year, it would be worth it for the view alone! 

ARE THE MACAQUES HAPPY?

I got a LOT of messages on insta about this! Japan is known for the opportunities to see wildlife, but unfortunately, a lot of those cases are not particularly consensual for the creatures (animal cafes I think the fuck not). I try to thoroughly vet everywhere I visit before I financially support anywhere profiting from animals. The macaques have been living in this area for years and whilst there is an entrance and exit to the park, there are no actual barriers; they’re not cordoned off into this area. It’s less of a park and more of an area where they know macaques like to go. The monkeys choose to come here and use the onsen in the Winter and tend to go elsewhere in the warmer months.

It’s true that the park workers scatter food for the macaques to encourage them to come down, but given that there are no fences or anything, they’re free to roam as they please. It’s a yes from me on the animal welfare front! It was so amazing to see these animals in the wild. There were a great many signs warning you not to touch them or get to close; that said, the macaques are used to humans and will happily walk past you or sit next to you. That goes for the other macaques I’ve met as well!

 

A FEW TIPS

It was fairly simple to get to the park itself; if you buy a Snow Monkey pass from Nagano station (huge central train station that loads of lines go through) you’re then able to take the expressway Snow Monkey bus which drops you off at the base of the mountain. The thing to watch is the expressway bus timetable; they’re not particularly regular. Given that it’s then a 30-40 minute walk from the bus stop to the actual park, you need to allow enough time to get up there, look around, and get back.

I saw a lot of people on the internet going to Jigokudani as a daytrip from Tokyo. This would be a super long day (about 3 hours each way to Nagano) but is possible. You’d want to thoroughly expore the timetables and time everything correctly! My plan was a bit more chilled; I stayed in a nearby onsen village for two nights and went to Jigokudani on the full day in between. This meant I wasn’t keeping an eye on the clock the whole time and also was able to explore the nearby areas a bit.

I love animals and didn’t want to feel rushed in the park. That said, it’s obviously chilly and not that massive so I’d say you want about 3 hours maximum in the park itself (some people were saying 30-45 minutes minimum, which I think is way too short if you want to actually watch them).

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7 Comments

  • Reply Cate

    This was one of the absolute best things I’ve ever done in my life, I adored the monkeys here so much! Honestly they were just so cute and chill completely different to the monkeys I’ve encountered in Thailand who have no chill whatsoever and will just attack you for food. We did the day trip thing which was pretty fun but exhausting but definitely agree staying for a few days there would be better because it’s just a beautiful part of the country to explore and I would have loved to do an Onsen with the monkeys xoxo

    Cateaclysmic

    February 7, 2018 at 3:30 pm
  • Reply Jessica

    Okay, firstly spending several months travelling around Japan sounds absolutely incredible and I’m super jealous! And secondly, this looks like such an awesome experience! Not only getting to hang out in an outdoor Onsen with that view, but to also be surrounded by macaques and to have a baby one sneeze on you?! SO cute! That’s also really good to hear that it gets a big tick from you in terms of animal welfare, because it wouldn’t be anywhere near as nice of an experience if you knew they were being mistreated and weren’t free to roam wherever they liked.

    littlehenrylee.net

    February 8, 2018 at 5:05 pm
  • Reply Audrey

    I’ve seen lots of photos of this online! // They wash and season their food?? And one sneezed on you?? #BLESSED // The research you do beforehand is so responsible! I haven’t partaken in any activities involving making money off of animals, but if I’m ever thinking about it, I’ll definitely check that it values the animals’ interests. I feel like cat cafes are super popular now, but I haven’t thought about how this could be detrimental to the cats. I guess I thought, this is so wonderful, all these people showing cats love! I know some cat cafes put a cap on how many people can be inside at a time, and I bet that helps, but I wonder if that’s enough. I haven’t ever been to a cat cafe so I’m not sure how it works. There are probably a few good ones out there with responsible owners, but there are probably quite a few that aren’t. -Audrey | Brunch at Audrey’s

    February 8, 2018 at 5:05 pm
  • Reply Jane

    Oh my those monkeys are so adorable! How are there so many animal themed locations in Japan (rabbits, deer)?
    The scenery is also unreal. The shots of the houses/bridges against the snowy mountains actually look like movie scenes!

    February 10, 2018 at 12:12 am
  • Reply Natasha

    As soon as you put this on Twitter, I knew I was going to be swooning throughout the entire post, and swoon I did! From the scenery to the adorable macaques, you got so many gorgeous photos and it is amazing to know that the macaques are truly left to their own devices in the area. I remember seeing these little cuties bathing in the hot springs on a wildlife documentary as a kid and it’s always been a dream of mine to see it in person someday, so until then your post allows me to live vicariously and enjoy your stunning photos instead! Thank you for all of the advice and information about the area too Laila, bookmarking this for future reference! – Tasha

    February 11, 2018 at 2:48 am
  • Reply Laura

    this seems like such a great experience. the macaques look so cute and the area beautiful. all your japan posts/instagrams are really making me want to visit! xx

    February 14, 2018 at 6:46 pm
  • Reply Lorna ✶ The Painted Globe

    Ditto with regards to being super wary of tourist sites that involve/profit from animals. So glad that the macaques are happy and roaming free. Love all your photos of them

    The sneeze!!

    February 26, 2018 at 2:44 am
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