There are endless reasons that set the land of the rising sun at the very top of many people’s travel bucket lists. The chaotic LSD trip of Tokyo, Kyoto’s echoes of ancient pasts, Hiroshima’s memorial of apocalyptic terror and the tropical paradise of Okinawa. Equally as appealing would be the spectacular nature that Japan provides. For what they lack in animal diversity, they make up for by having some of the most unique phenomenons found anywhere in the world. One spectacle, in particular, stands out above all the rest. It’s become symbolic of Japan, a fascination that’s recognisable throughout the world. Those are of course the fascinating snow monkeys.
The images of the monkeys leisurely bathing in the toasty waters of a natural hot-spring in the valleys of a snow blanketed mountain setting has become a truly iconic image. For many its the sole reason to travel to this far east nation, to witness this entrancing display of anthropomorphism. If there’s any experience worth a detour on your Japanese adventure, it would have to be this. Here’s how to plan the perfect trip to visit these fascinating little creatures.
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The Jigokudani Monkey Park is the only place on Earth where the world-famous hot-spring loving Japanese macaques can be found. For decades the commonly called snow monkeys have been the subject of fascination from scientists, documentarians and curious travellers alike. The park is centred around a single man-made pool where the considerably large group of monkeys gather in and around. They descend from the high mountains and surrounding forest to sit and unwind in the warm waters of the onsen (hot-spring). After a long-hard day of relaxation they return to the security of the forests as the sun begins to set.
The utterly unique collection of macaques live in large social groups, with a number of each individual age group. From the wise old patriarchs to mischievous juveniles and the most adorable of babies. The monkeys have become so accustomed to human visitors that they barely acknowledge their presence. They’re even comfortable enough to fearlessly run across your feet as they go about their business.
Since the 1950s the snow monkeys have faced several threats to their native habitat due to human encroachment. The expansion of nearby ski resorts resulted in significant deforestation to make way for ski runs and chairlifts. The destruction of their habitats forced the monkeys to migrate to lower mountain ranges surrounding Jigokudani and the nearby town of Yamanouchi.
The invading monkeys came into direct contact with humans, becoming a problem for local farmers as they raided crops. The community regarded the macaques as pests and began hunting them down. This was the driving factor for a man named Soga Hara to make an effort to protect his beloved monkeys.
Around this time is also when the monkeys began a revolutionary trend. As they encroached deeper into human habitation, they discovered Korakukan; a traditional guesthouse with its own onsen (natural hot-spring) and the only one of its kind during that time. After observing curious humans soaking within the healing waters of the hot springs, one courageous and inquisitive monkey tried it for himself. Soon after his fellow monkey brethren joined in, starting a new trend within the monkey community. This gave birth to the incredibly unique phenomenon we see today.
Though coming to observe the peculiar little monkeys bathing in the waters became an incredible draw, the guesthouse and those that stayed within it weren’t too pleased having to share the hot spring with wild monkeys. With all points considered, Sogo Hara become the leader in a movement to establish a monkey park in 1964. Its purpose was not only to create a safe space for the preservation and friendly observation of these beautiful creatures, but also to ensure minimal encroachment to or from humans.
When To Go
Naturally, the best and most scenic time to witness this extraordinary phenomenon is when the surrounding mountains and forest are carpeted with blissful untouched snow. The region usually receives heavy snowfall during the winter months (December-March), though January and February are believed to be the best time of year. That being said, the monkeys still frequent the hot-springs during the summer months. Therefore the park is still open all year. The park employees will even entice the monkeys to stay by leaving food for them around the pools surroundings.
The Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is in region of Yamanouchi in the Shimotakai district of Nagano. “Jigokudani” is translated to “Hell Valley”, due to the highly volcanic area to which its situated. This is most obvious when you see large amounts of steam oozing out from the harsh environment. More importantly would be the boiling water which supplies several inns and ryokans (traditional guesthouse) in the surrounding mountain towns with water for their onsens. The park itself is just on the outskirts of the town Yudanaka Onsen. The park also fits within the ranges of Shiga Kogen National Park.
Though the park is closer to the western coast of the country, it’s still possible to visit on a day trip from Tokyo. This is an option many people choose with plenty of tour groups offering this back in the capital. Naturally, the easiest way to get there will always be to drive there yourself. However that isn’t an option to most people, but no need to panic as the route is quite simple.
Step 1 – Head to Nagano
First you’ll need to head to the city of Nagano just to the south of the mountain ranges. The most common routes are from Tokyo in the east or from the south as far as Nagoya via Matsumoto. There are also routes available from the north from such places as Niigata, though they tend to be more expensive and less frequent. Whichever direction you’re headed from, you’ll have two options:
If you’re planning a day trip from Tokyo, then the bullet train (Shinkansen) is your only viable option. Any other form of transport will be too time-consuming and would leave very little time to visit the monkeys. This is a very costly option as a round trip starts at a minimum of ¥12,000 for unreserved seats. The route would however be covered by a JR Pass. From the south, direct trains come from as far as Nagoya for as little as ¥5300, roughly taking 3 hours.
This would be a slower yet much cheaper option. From Tokyo a 4-hour bus should cost as little as about ¥2300 for a budget bus company such as Willer Express and about ¥3700 for a 5-hour bus from Nagoya. Overall, I’d recommend saving yourself some money by taking the slower option and stay for at least a night. This isn’t an experience that should be rushed.
Step 2 – Head to Yamanouchi
Once you’ve arrived in the city of Nagano, you need to head into the mountain ranges. The same two options are available: bus or train. For day-trippers, the bus is your best option, as an express bus runs from Nagano Station directly to the monkey park. However, the buses are infrequent, only running around 10 times a day (even less so in the low-season) and cost roughly the same as the train (¥1,400)
The other option is a train which runs along the Nagano Dentetsu (Nagaden) line from Nagano Station. This train heads all the way into the mountains to the last stop at Yudanaka Station. The cost and duration depends on whether you take local (more stops) or express trains, costing ¥1,190 and ¥1,290 respectively. From Yudanaka Station you’re able to catch a bus towards Kanbayashi Onsen or Snow Monkey Park for about 10 minutes and a bargain ¥320. The buses run often every hour of the day.
Step 3 – Reaching the Snow Monkeys
Once you reach the outskirts of the park, there’s about a 20 minute walk through the forests trail which lead you to the bathing area. At which point you will reach a small information centre where you’re required to pay the entrance fee of ¥800 for adults and half-price for kids. The path behind the information centre then leads towards the man-made pool that the monkeys frequent.
Though it would seem that such an enormously ground-breaking attraction should be overrun by impatient and inconsiderate tourists, its usually not too bad. Always be aware that despite the monkeys being very docile and seemingly friendly, they are still wild animals. It should go without saying that feeding or touching the monkeys is prohibited.
Snow Monkey 1-Day Pass
During certain seasons, the Snow Monkey 1-Day Pass will be an available option. It includes access to the Nagaden Train and/or the express bus between Nagano Station and Kanbayashi Onsen. It also allows you to use the local Nagaden Bus between Yudanaka Station and Kanbayashi Onsen as well as admission to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. A good money saver and very convenient.
First things first, you have to decide the type of trip you want. If you’re planning a day trip, then this isn’t an issue. However if you’re planning to stay overnight, there are a number options for places to stay. There are a number of ski resorts around the area that have plenty of hotels and lesser accommodation to choose from. However, these can be more expensive options, thus I believe there two options better than the rest.
By staying back in the nearby city of Nagano, you gain an added level of convenience while being a short train/bus journey away from the monkeys. That being said, there aren’t too many budget options available. There are only a couple of hostels available with the prices ranging from £19 upwards. Otherwise the only options available are quite expensive hotels.
My personal recommendation is to stay in some form of accommodation in Yudanaka. The quiet mountain town has a decent selection of simple hostels to the more traditional Ryokans and guesthouses. The prices aren’t that much different to Nagano, while being as close as possible to the monkey park. Not only that, but to be in the snowy surroundings of the valleys between the monstrous peaks while sitting around a log-burning stove in a small wooden cabin equipped with authentic little Japanese room makes it all the more special.
I highly recommend staying in Guest House Honami-Kaido, it’s amongst the cheapest accommodation available throughout the prefecture, and comes with some incredible personal touches. Exactly the paradise that I previously mentioned with a log burning fire and traditional Japanese rooms! The host of the guesthouse is incredibly accommodating. Despite his total lack of English, he’s happy to help in anyway possible. That includes driving you to and from the train station as well as the monkey park for free.
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.