Travel Features : Snow Monkey Magic

Bathing naked in a hot spring is a common, if not daily, event for many Japanese. The warm mineral waters soothe aching muscles and relax tired minds. In a country renowned for its almost fanatical work ethic, traditional onsen pools provide a moment of much needed relief. The Japanese people, however, aren't the only ones enjoying the thermal waters. When snow begins to fall, a new group of bathers comes down from the mountains, and soaks in the steam enshrouded pools. Lounging around, they scratch and watch the world go by, unconcerned by the presence of video cameras and photographers. They are the ultimate hot spring aficionados — Japanese snow monkeys.

In a remote part of the Japanese Alps, near Shiga Koen Volcano, there is a quiet steep-sided valley called Jigokudani. A rough translation of the name would be Hell Valley, and every winter hell freezes over. A thick coating of snow and ice covers the valley sides, but plumes of steam continue to rise from the river below. There is also the faint, but unmistakable, smell of sulfur. Hot water is piped down to hotels in the village of Kanbayashi Onsen, but there are also hot spring pools in Jigokudani. These outdoor pools are used by two groups of visitors: the guests at the valley's solitary inn and the local snow monkeys.

The Japanese Macaque is well documented as being a smart animal. There are examples of monkeys washing sweet potatoes to remove the dirt, and even dipping them in sea water to add salt for flavoring. In 1963, a young female monkey clambered into a hot spring to collect soybeans that were floating on the surface of the water. The behavior was copied by others in the troop, and soon it became common for the monkeys to retreat to the hot pools when the harsh winter arrived.

Part of Hell Valley is now called Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park, but this is no zoo. The monkeys are all free-ranging; their troops move in and out of the valley depending on the season. In winter, when food is limited, monkeys congregate in and around the pools for warmth and the daily supply of barley and soybeans.

Two groups of wooden buildings are located at the head of the valley: a Japanese Inn or ryokan and the park's visitor’s centre. The relative inaccessibility of Jigokudani means that unlike the other iconic sites of Japan (Gion's geisha district, Nara's Todai-ji Temple or Kyoto's Golden Pavilion) there is an absence of coach parties, school groups and umbrella-waving tour guides. Entry to the park is 500 yen and you are told to leave any food you may have inside the visitor's centre. You are also warned not to touch the monkeys nor stare into their eyes.

Before you have even left the warmth of the visitor’s center, you can hear them. They scamper across the metal sheeting of the roof and down the drainpipes. A path is cut in the snow leading to the hot spring pool, and the monkeys gather there to inspect the new arrivals. As you approach, they sit and watch silently, then turn and saunter away. The adult monkeys weigh around 20 pounds (10 kilograms) and stand about two feet tall. They are not intimidating, or even that interested in your presence, but then again, they have learned that visitors are not carrying any food. The park also has a large number of juveniles; the smallest of the monkeys can be seen still clinging to their mother's fur.

The main hot spring pool was constructed specifically for use by the monkeys. There is a steep snow bank on one side, while the river bubbles away on the other. Once the monkeys are sitting in the warm water, they are even less concerned by the presence of voyeurs. Some sit motionless in the pool, their arms placed languidly over the rocky lip. Mothers groom their babies' fur, while juveniles groom the older, more dominant, monkeys. In winter the monkeys’ fur is thick and grey-brown in color; their faces, however, are naked showing expressive features. The younger monkeys have light brown faces which become deep red as they mature. Making eye contact with a monkey can be seen as a threat and lead to being attacked, but it is possible through a camera lens. Standing behind my tripod and telephoto lens I looked through the viewfinder and saw the monkeys staring back at me. Their green-brown eyes seem to show a considerable amount of intelligence. The fact they are relaxing in the warm pool while I stand knee deep in snow raises the question: Which of us is smarter?


It is interesting to note that the three monkeys who "hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil" were based on the Japanese Macaque. However, this may have more to do with a play on words rather than the religious importance of monkeys. The three truths of the Tendai sect of Buddhism are mizaru (see no evil), kikazaru (hear no evil) and iwazaru (speak no evil.) The Japanese verb ending -zaru and the word for monkey (salu) are pronounced almost identically. The use of monkeys therefore may be no more than a clever visualisation of a religious teaching.

Getting There

Although Japan arguably has the world’s best transport system, Jigokudani Valley could not be described as easily accessible. The Shinkansen Asama bullet train covers the first 140 miles (220km) from Tokyo to Nagano in a little over 90 minutes. At Nagano City, however, you must change to the slow local train to Yudanaka, and then the even slower bus to Kanbayashi Onsen. From Kanbayashi it’s all on foot, trekking up the snow covered road until a trail breaks off through the trees. For two kilometers the path winds its way through a forest of red pine and Japanese larch until arriving at Jigokudani.

Where to Stay

It is feasible, but rushed, to stay in Nagano City and visit the monkeys as a day trip. Another possibility is to stay at one of the hotels in Kanbayashi Onsen. The third option would be to stay in Hell Valley itself at the Korakukan Jigokudani. Korakukan is a small inn with twelve Japanese style rooms. It is located right next to the monkey park and has hot spring baths both inside and outside. If you want to get close to nature, this is about as near as you can get. The monkeys clamber over the building, look through the windows and even use the inn's outdoor baths. It costs around 10,000 yen per person per night, but this includes dinner and breakfast.

It is also important to realize that when walking two kilometers up a snow covered track, boots and a rucksack are preferable to sneakers and a suitcase.

More information

Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park has its own webpage. You can even see what the monkeys are up to by clicking on the webcam. (http://www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/english/top/english.html

Details about the traditional Japanese inn, Korakukan Jigokudani can be found at http://japaneseguesthouses.com/db/nagano/korakukan.htm


View all Snow Monkey images at Alamy.com