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 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!
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!
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).