If you’ve ever seen any promotional materials for Japan I’m sure you’ll have seen one of the cute little monkeys enjoying the hot springs in the snow, right? In case you haven’t, here is what they look like:
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, seeing as we already had plans to see deers in Nara and Rabbit Island near Hiroshima. (I may have done some we-must-see-as-many-animals-as-possible persuasion on Mr A.)
After taking the Snow Monkey Express train (yep, it’s a thing) to Shibu Onsen town we were greeted at the station by a lovely old man who 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 quite a common occurrence in Japan and made us realise just how suspicious we had become during our travels in other countries. We’d become 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 our ryokan, we immediately set off for the Snow Monkey Park which was a 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.)
We had read mixed reviews for Jigokudani, with the main complaint being that it is small, but we decided we’d go and make up our own minds. 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) and as soon as we stepped into the park and looked across the valley we started to notice 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 visitors centre which has information about the monkeys’ behaviour, which was interesting to read and then observe in person. The park straddles a river, which runs from a hot spring and is therefore the monkeys’ favourite place to be during the winter months. 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 and didn’t approach people, probably because of the strict no food policy implemented on the site.
They mainly seemed to be uninterested in the people around them and their principal concerns were basking in the warm sunshine and grooming each other.
There were also a few mothers feeding their babies and plenty of young ones who were determined to play 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…
To reach Jigokudani Monkey Park take the train from Tokyo to Nagano and then the Snow Monkey Express to Yudanaka. From there you can get a local bus to the park. Alternatively you can take a bus direct from Nagano. For more information visit http://en.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/