Everybody knows this place. Surely you have seen it on TV any time. The monkeys get inside warm pools while around everything is covered by white snow. Some ape wade its head under the warm water, another jumps to the rocky rim to cool off in the icy morning air, while there’s a pair helping each other to grab parasites from the unreachable part of the back. Without doubt, it’s a wonderful site… But did you thought about getting there? Will you think about it when you’ll plan your trip to Japan? Many people visit Japan, but still not so many think about this magical place. Here, we will explain you how to get there and introduce the many other things to do around the place. Let’s go!
Jigokudani Monkey Park
Jigokudani Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑 Jigokudani Yaen Kōen) is located in the Nagano Prefecture, just near the town of Yamanouchi, some 200 km from Tokyo. It’s part of the bigger Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, also known as Shigakogen, right in the Yokoyu River valley, 850 m above the sea level.
The many hot springs within the valley give it the name of Jigokudani, which in Japanese means “Hell Valley”. It gets fully impressive in winter, when steam and boiling water come out hot from the underground forming warm pools in the middle of a fully snowed landscape. The Japanese Macaques, also referred as Snow Monkeys, wander around the forest during summer, but in winter, when snow falls and it gets -15ºC, they are pleased with some calm baths in the warm pools. Jigokudani is snowed for about four months per year.
The story began in 1963, when a young macaque female (nicknamed Mukubili) began to wade into the hot water to retrieve a few soybeans that were fallen there. Soon, she realized it was so comfortable, and stayed for longer times. Scientists who were studying the monkeys, especially Mukubili’s group, soon saw other monkeys following her and beginning to take baths. Other troops of macaques joined them after some time, definitely proving that macaques, like humans, can learn by looking at others behavior. After this, Jigokudani’s macaques have been observed learning how to open nuts, wash potatoes and making snowballs. Soon, this improvements spread throughout Japan
Originally human made, the hot springs baths – onsen in Japanese, roten-buro if they are open air – in Jigokudani provide warm water to a total population of 250 Japanese Macaques. The site is not so crowded of tourists as it’s with monkeys, probably because of the food that the park ranges leave there every morning.
The monkeys are mid-sized by monkey standards, with grey and white winter fur that forms thick tufts around their pink faces and deep eyes. They are quite docile and let the small groups of tourists get close and take photos, usually doing as if they where not there. But, anyway, there are always some warnings you should take, which are described some lines below.
There’s a web cam installed in the hot springs. You can enjoy Jigokudani Snow Monkeys here, but, as said, in summer the monkeys are not always there.
You can get to Jigokudani Monkey Park thermal baths by two paths going up the mountain: one coming from Kanbayashi Onsen, a hot spings town; and the other from Yudanaka Train Station, passing through Shibu Onsen.
The first option consists in taking a bus from Nagano to Shiga Kogen Ski area and get out of the train in Kanbayashi Onsen (onsen means hot springs baths in Japanese). From there, you have a walking trail to Jigokudani Monkey Park, taking you about 30 to 40 minutes to arrive.
The second way to the monkey baths is to take an express train to Yudanaka 湯田中, being this service more frequent than the mentioned above. But you are not as close. From there you should choose between taking a shuttle in Shibu Onsen hot spings (working on Saturday, Sunday and Holidays) to Jigokudani Parking Lot, letting you closer to the monkey’s place but with a 15 min steep path. Think that the road is closed to cars in winter, presumably when you’ll want to go to the park, so maybe you’ll have to walk all the way. If you don’t want to walk that much, local buses connect Yudanaka train station to Kanbayashi Onsen, from where you can take the path described firstly.
From Tokyo, a nice option is to take a bullet train to Nagano. Reaching the 260 km/h, it will drop you there in not more than one hour and a half. And, of course, you can also use the traditional cheaper options.
Hours: 8:30 to 17:00 (April to October)
9:00 to 16:00 (November to March)
Admission: 500 yen for adults; 250 yen for children
It’s advisable to don’t get there with food, even if it’s inside your bag. You can leave it in the visitors’ centre, which can save you from some hungry-angry macaque. As said, the monkeys are mostly calmed and let you get close, but some times they can be aggressive, usually when there’s food around. Touching the monkeys is also not recommendable, as well as stare into their eyes is not a good idea.
Also advisable is to have warm clothes, travel lightly and have a good pair of boots.
It would be so nice to take a bath and relax in the same pool as the monkeys do, and some photos are there on the web to prove that it’s well possible, but maybe a parasitologist would not encourage it. You can better go to the onsens of Shibu Onsen and Kanbayashi Onsen, at the bottom of the valley, picturesque onsen villages with more than 1300 years of hot spring bathing tradition. There you’ll find old typical Japanese architecture, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, narrow streets and wonderfully decorated thermal baths.
Ski is another activity with wide possibilities around Yamanochi. Here are placed many of the ski slopes that were used during the Nagano Winter Olympic Games and the entire infrastructure for winter sports. Snow boarding half-pipes, ice skating, ski jump… everything. And as we are in the mountains, other nature-related sports such as hiking are also well possible.
You’ll find the most wonderful accommodation at the numerous ryokans, name of the traditional Japanese guest houses or hotels, with tatami and straw mats on the floor, a small table in the middle of the room and oriental futons for sleep. Usually, ryokans serve two meals per day; if you want more, you’ll find some good restaurants around the town.
And for saying goodbye, here you have a few videos!