Jigokudani Yaenkoen (Monkey Park). You might not have heard that name but you have probably heard about a place in Nagano where the winter Olympics were once held and where you can see “snow monkeys” (Japanese Macaque) taking an onsen (bath in a hot spring). I had often heard about those monkeys and seen them on TV but I until now, did not get an opportunity to get there (seems like this place is as popular amongst Japanese people as it is for foreigners, so Hiroko even did not know where these hot spring monkeys were. Most of the visitors we saw at the nature part were from outside of Japan.), and I now wish I had found out about it earlier….
The Jigokudani Yaenkoen park opened in 1964 and since then many thousands of people from around the world have visited the park to observe the lifestyle of the Japanese Macaque. The Japanese Macaque (Macaca fuscata) is a monkey species native to northern Japan, and is the most northern-living non-human primate, surviving winter temperatures of below -15 °C. They have brown-gray fur, a red face, hands and bottom, and a short tail – and often seem remarkably human like.
In the wild they spend most of their time in forests and feed on seeds, buds, fruit, invertebrates, berries, leaves, and bark. The monkeys have a body length ranging from 80 to 95 cm. The males weigh around 10-14 kg while the females are usually around 5.5 kg.
The park is located in the Yokoyu River valley, which flows down from Shiga Kogen. At an elevation of 850 meters, the area is called Jigokudani (“Hell’s Valley”) due to the steep cliffs and hot water steaming out from the earth’s surface. It’s also a fairly harsh environment in winter with snow on the ground for a third of the year, but it is also a paradise for the couple of hundred monkeys that live there. We’re lucky too, because we can enter their world and watch them enjoying themselves. Watching the monkeys play, take a leisurely onsen – or even swim in the onsen – is a lot of fun. All the time the monkeys basically just ignore their human watchers and just get on with whatever it is they want to be doing. You can imagine that these monkeys are very polite as Japanese people! They never try to steel or attack you.
We saw baby monkeys, too!
Well worth the trip and much easier to get to than you’d think (though it may be a bit tough if you visit in winter as the way to the park is quite steep). The entry fee is only 500 yen (around USD 5) per person to enter the park. This was certainly a highlight of our one week stay in Japan in April 2014
If you are in the area, a visit to see the monkeys of Jigokudani is highly recommended.