If you’ve ever seen any promotional materials for Japan I’m sure you’ll have seen one of the snow monkeys at Jigokudani. They’re usually photographed enjoying the hot springs in the snow, looking ridiculously close to humans relaxing in a hot tub.
Just in case you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s what you’re missing out on:
I’m pretty sure many holidays to Japan have been decided on the basis of that face alone.
Although we spent our honeymoon in Japan during the spring cherry blossom season, rather than in snowy weather, we decided we would add the Jigokudani Monkey Park to our itinerary. Especially as we already had plans to see deers in Nara and visit Rabbit Island near Hiroshima. (I may have done some we-must-see-as-many-animals-as-possible persuasion on Mr A.)
Getting to Jigokudani Monkey Park
To reach Jigokudani Monkey Park you can take the train from Tokyo to Nagano. From there you can either take a direct bus to the park or the Snow Monkey Express train (yep, it’s a thing) to Shibu Onsen town. We took the train and were approached at the station by a lovely old man. We were a bit confused at first, but it turned out he was a volunteer from the town’s English class. After explaining the bus system to us and arming us with maps for the area he waved us on our way.
This became a common occurrence in Japan and made us realise just how suspicious we had become during our travels in other countries. We were so used to people offering to help in return for money, that we were actually surprised by the number of people who simply wanted to help us. Letting down our guard was something we definitely had to get used to in Japan.
After dropping off our bags at the ryokan we were staying at, we set off for Jigokudani Monkey Park. It can be reached from Shibu Onsen by a pleasant 45 minute walk away through a forested area. It’s also possible to drive closer to the park and walk the last 10 minutes or so.
First impressions of the snow monkeys at Jigokudani
We had read mixed reviews for Jigokudani, with the main complaint being that it is small. However we decided we’d go and make up our own minds.
When we arrived we were pleasantly surprised by the low entrance fee (something you don’t usually find at places which cater mainly for tourists – another theme we found in Japan).
As soon as we entered the park and looked across the valley we noticed monkeys moving on the mountain opposite.
At first they were difficult to spot and their grey bodies seemed to blend into the surrounding rocks. But gradually we saw more and more of them moving easily across the steep slopes.
Jigokudani has a small visitor centre which has information about the monkeys’ behaviour. It was really interesting to read this and then observe the behaviours in person.
What you can expect to see at Jigokudani
The park straddles a river, which runs from a hot spring and is the monkeys’ favourite place to be in winter. There were lots of monkeys on both sides of the river and while they weren’t scared of humans, they weren’t overly-friendly either. They didn’t approach people, probably because of the strict no food policy implemented on the site.
They mainly seemed to be uninterested in people and their principal concerns were basking in the sunshine and grooming.
There were also a few mothers feeding their babies. Plus plenty of youngsters who were playing rough and tumble, much to the annoyance of their young female ‘babysitters’.
We spent ages sitting watching the monkeys. It never fails to amaze me how human-like their expressions and mannerisms are.
Although the park is small we were definitely glad we made the visit. After all, you don’t see many faces cuter than this…
For more information about the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park visit http://en.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/
If you enjoyed this post about Japan, you can read more about our experience of using a Japanese onset here and what it’s like to stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan here.
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