Snow monkeys in Japan

Total cuteness: What are you looking at? Japanese macaque in Jigokudani Monkey Park

OK – this post is for animal lovers – this is the best encounter I have had with animals on a hiking trip.

Japanese macaques have to be one of the cutest animals on the planet, particularly when you can share their space at a hot spring in the harsh Japanese winter. It’s only a 3 hour trip from downtown Tokyo, but I’d strongly recommend a longer stay, as we did in mid-winter February. The atmosphere and peaceful landscape in this part of Japan will hold memories for my lifetime.

Japanese macaques at Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yamanouchi, Japan.

Jigokudani Monkey Park is a unique hot spring and part of the Shiga Kogen National Park. The region is blessed with magnificent mountain peaks in the centre of Japan’s main island, Honshu. The winter environment is hauntingly beautiful, but challenging, for both monkeys and people. However, Japanese towns within these mountain ranges are well served by reliable public transport and communities that have lived here for hundreds of years.

Yudanaka: End of the railway line in a vast valley in the mountain ranges of Honshu Japan

The first part of this scenic journey involves a Shinkansen or express train to JR-Nagano, which is the main railway station for Nagano city, which hosted the Winter Olympic in 1998. After arriving in Nagano, transfer to a privately run railway line, Nagano Dentetsu Express, for a final 44 minute local line journey to Yudanaka. Transferring from one line to another was slightly tricky, as this railway begins as an underground subway in Nagano, but once you find the platform, you’ll soon commence a journey through modern dormitory suburbs of the city, before the train starts squealing it’s way along curvy tracks to higher altitudes. Suburbia gives way to large towns, followed by stunning white wintery country landscapes. As the sun began to set over this vast mountain landscape, we arrived in Yudanaka – a quaint service town at the top of a deep valley at the end of the railway line.

Snow was piled up along this railway line, but the trains still keep to their timetable. The Japanese could certainly teach UK and Australian railway companies a thing or two about running reliable, efficient public transport.

Snow accumulates on the station platform in the middle of winter, prior to the arrival of a morning train.

Upon arrival in Yudanaka, it was a a short 2 minute walk to our local Japanese hotel (ryokan) called Yudanaka Seifuso, where the rooms were spacious, very clean and comfortable. The common areas were also quite relaxed and welcoming, with a hot spring on the premises.

After eating a wonderful Japanese breakfast at the ryokan, the hosts insisted on driving us to the entrance to the national park: communication was possible, even though our Japanese language skills were non-existent. I guess everyone who comes to this part of the world is heading for the same place.

Typical scenic views through the forests leading to the hot springs where the monkeys live.

A FAIRYTALE WALK THROUGH THE WINTER FOREST

The walk through the forest was like a magical childhood fairytale: a 45 minute walk through lonely wintery landscapes. It was so cold, but full of anticipation: almost like living in a real life fairytale like Hansel & Gretel. I didn’t have any gingerbread to find our way out of here, and had flashbacks to entertaining Japanese animation films that are set in dark forests.

Japanese macaques enjoying the hot springs in Jigokudani Monkey Park

After the icy trek, we arrived at the large hot spring, where the monkeys congregate – it is nestled in a narrow snowy gorge. These monkeys are free to come and go, but they have lived here for decades, because they are fed by park rangers a couple of times each day. They are wild, but quite accustomed to humans. I think the local authorities have managed to balance the needs of the macaques against visitors, as no visitors are allowed to feed the monkeys – so they are not aggressive. This reminded me of my favourite saying:

” If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys: but if you pay more peanuts, you get greedy monkeys. “

Macaques relaxing the hot hot springs with steam rising into the air

Visitors can wander through the hot spring area at their leisure, with amazing photo opportunities. Don’t be fooled, as these monkeys are mostly wild: don’t look them in the eye, as this is interpreted as aggressive behaviour.

SO HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

Snow monkeys do not normally jump into hot springs. This place is a very Japanese solution to a problem: these monkeys were raiding local apple farms in the 1950s, and local farmers were calling for their extermination. Fortunately, a local land owner grew an apple orchard deep in this valley and enticed the monkeys with additional food in the depths of winter. So now we are lucky to be able to visit this place, which is not wild, but a great example of humans and wild animals living together.

Although they monkeys are mostly placid, you do get the feeling that this is still a wild special place, especially given the long walk back to the town through the forest. It’s just amazing to sit amongst some of our close evolutionary relatives and watch their family behaviour and social customs. My favourite part of this experience was just sitting in the middle of their group, observing the behaviour of family groups, young monkeys playing and the sedate chilled elders who just sit back and watch over their extended family. There’s no need to touch or pet these amazing animals, as you are already part of their community.

Although this was an incredible experience in the beautiful snowy weather, I’m not sure that I would come here if there was no snow. It appears that the monkeys live a very different life when the snow disappears – I think they explore the mountains and rivers in the region and hopefully feed themselves on local plants.

GETTING THERE AND AWAY

Getting here is really easy, even if you don’t speak Japanese. Yudanaka is accessible from Nagano by regular local trains on the Nagano Dentetsu Line. Skinkansen (bullet) trains link Nagano to Tokyo and express trains also go to Nagoya (and Osaka/Kyoto region).

Yudanaka is a fairly large rural town with a wide range of restaurants and shops surrounding the local railway station which is at the end of the Nagano Dentetsu Line.

Shuttle buses run from the centre of Yudanaka to the entrance to the national park – a trip of about 10-15 minutes. The town is also great for exploring and experiencing local Japanese small town life – quaint little streets, good local food in cosy inns and magnificent views across wild mountain landscapes.

Winter landscape in Yudanaka, Yamanouchi Prefecture, Japan

USEFUL LINKS

Jigokudani Park Guide

Recommended accomodation in Yudanaka: Yudanaka Seifuso

Comprehensive advice on the park: Jigokudani Monkey Park

Other places to visit in Nagano: Nagano Travel Guide

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