Up in the mountains beyond Nagano, where the hot springs flow plentifully, there is a place known as monkey paradise. In Jigokudani Yaenkoen (Hell-Valley Wild Monkey Park), the wild Japanese Macaques which live in the mountains come to soak in the hot springs. Some winter feeding provided by the park is naturally an extra motivation.The monkeys of Jigokudani became known as snow monkeys mainly because they can only be observed there in winter, since during the others seasons they do not come down into the valley. They are used to human visitors and are on the whole quite indifferent towards them, at least as long as one doesn’t look them directly into the eyes. This counts as an act of aggression in monkey society. Already on our way to the park, a monkey came towards us on our narrow path. For a moment we were wondering what to do, but it turned out that by just minding our business we were able to pass each other in close distance without incident.
Some monkeys were looking for food along the river, but the biggest attraction of the park (both for visitors and monkeys) are the pools of onsen water. At the pool, I almost had a diplomatic accident. A monkey and I by chance happened to look straight into each others eyes. And both of us immediately looked away, as if to say, “ah, that’s not good, let’s pretend it hasn’t happened”.
Just like for us, the spa is a place of cleaning. The monkeys are often seen grooming and delousing each other in the pool. Others are obviously just relaxing in the hot water and are letting their thoughts wander.
They are not disturbed by their human cousins wielding their cameras only an arm’s length away. They seem to live in their own parallel world. Yet, visitors are strongly discouraged from eating around the monkeys. Food is also of interest in their world and they might try to rip it out of one’s hands.
That the macaques are well-equipped for the snowy winters of the region is obvious from their thick and very fluffy looking fur (I was very tempted to try to touch them, but didn’t dare). Even when they leave the water dripping wet, they do not seem to be cold.
The baby monkeys are the cutest. Not only are they especially fluffy, but they also play all the time and are very mischievous. Anything will serve as a plaything to climb around on for them.
It was quite exciting for us to see the snow monkeys from up close. It’s an unusual experience to be so close to wild animals and observe them relaxing in the hot springs! Coming from mild Tokyo, it was also nice to be surrounded by deep snow for one day. To visit the snow monkeys in a day trip from Tokyo is maybe a bit of a stretch, but combined with an overnight stay in the close-by hot-spring town of Shibu-Onsen, it makes for a nice excursion.