14 Aug Japan’s Hot Spring Bathing Snow Monkeys
Steam was rising from the onsen, but the hot spring had a different kind of occupant than you would normally find. This hot spring was filled with monkeys. Escaping from the cold, some monkeys sat and soaked with a pensive stare while others groomed and picked at their fellow bathers. Observing the macaques interact with one another and go about their daily business was extremely intriguing—it was hard to look away.
When I brought up the idea of taking a trip to Japan after finding ridiculously cheap airfare, Micah had one request: he wanted to see those monkeys. The snow monkeys, or Japanese Macaques, that bathe in a hot spring, to be exact.
Neither of us had any idea where they were actually located in the country, but I readily agreed to his one request and snatched up the airfare deal as fast as I could. We were going to Japan!
Next up? Working the snow monkeys into our itinerary—I certainly couldn’t ignore the one and only request for the entire trip, and I was secretly just as excited to see them myself!
Jigokudani Yaen-Koen, aka the Monkey Park, is located just outside of the tiny town called Shibu Onsen. The park isn’t really a park, per say, but rather more of a hot spring in a valley where wild monkeys live and come to bathe. There is also a small visitor’s center with interesting facts and photos, but the monkeys definitely steal the show. Entrance to the park is 500yen for adults and 250yen for children.
Winter is the best time to visit, as there will be more monkeys in the hot spring trying to warm up from the winter chill. Some of them might even have a beard of fresh snow! The monkeys do bathe in the summer as well, but not near as much, and it makes sense—who wants to sit in a hot bath in the summer heat, am I right?
While the monkeys are wild and choose to live in the area and bathe in the hot spring on their own, sometimes the park rangers throw food into and around the spring to entice the monkeys to go for a swim. I’m not too keen on this aspect of the park, but the monkeys aren’t held captive and are free to come and go as they please. Also, the park does have strict rules about visitors not feeding or touching the monkeys.
Although I’m sure the crowds can get much larger, they were fairly large when we were visiting, and it left me feeling a bit sad for the monkeys.
They seem to have a constant stream of paparazzi, but at the same time they seem very accustomed to humans and pretty much ignored our presence, except for the curious baby monkey that jumped on an observer’s camera to investigate and inspect this strange object!
Getting to the park is a bit of a journey—if you are coming from Tokyo, you can take the train to Nagano and then hop on a connecting train to Yudanaka. From there, you can take the local bus or taxi to the park’s parking lot where you will have a 10-15 minute walk to the entrance of the park. We were staying in Shibu Onsen, so we decided to take the bus to our Ryokan first. Many of the hotels in Shibu Onsen offer a ride to the Monkey Park, but we decided to walk the 2.5 km route from town as we had been sitting on a train all day. The forest road is closed to vehicles in the winter, but we were told that we were allowed to walk on the road—we visited in March, and although we encountered a bit of ice it was fine to walk on. However, if you go in the middle of winter, I would avoid walking this road as the ice would make it a pretty difficult and potentially dangerous hike.
While seeing the snow monkeys was a special experience, it left me feeling a bit conflicted as well. Getting up close to a wild animal (and one of my favorite animals) in such a unique setting was definitely a highlight, but the crowds and knowing that the rangers feed the monkeys made me a bit uneasy. Whatever the case, I’m so glad the monkeys brought us to Shibu Onsen—we fell in love with the tiny, adorable town and it ended up being one of our favorite experiences from the entire trip!
Have you been to visit the snow monkeys? What is your favorite wild animal?