Visiting the Snow Monkeys

Snow Monkeys!

Surely that’s all I have to say to get your attention? No? How about this then….

Baby (Snow) Monkey

Paying attention now? I mean, how can you ignore this wee guy?

Visiting the Japanese Macaques was top of our list for our honeymoon adventure in Japan last month. I was so excited to go and see this famous population of snow monkeys in Jigokudani Yaen-koen towards the north of the Nagano prefecture.

You’ve quite possibly seen images of them before, basking in the heat of an onsen (natural hot spring) in the freezing climate of the Japanese mountains.  They’re pretty famous all thanks to one cheeky youngster, who, many years ago, delighted locals by leaping in to an onsen for a swim. The first of it’s kind to be documented exhibiting such extravagant behaviour.

In For a Dip – The only monkey to swim while we were there

The area is known as “Jigokudani” which translates as Hell Valley and is named as such thanks to the steep cliffs and hot springs which cause an eerie feel as the steam rises all around.

The macaques are wild and free to roam as they please but have learned to live alongside the humans who regularly put food out and, well, built them their own hot spring pool to bathe in. (Who wouldn’t come back for free food and a spa?) Since it’s establishment in 1964, it has attracted scientists and photographers from all around the world and the troop here are now one of the most studied groups of Japanese macaques ever.

Over generations, these monkeys have learned to soak their tired, cold limbs in the hot springs. They are blissfully indifferent to us somewhat larger, human, primates as we watch in awe while they go about their daily business.

A Family Portrait

We stayed for hours, possibly a couple longer than my husband had hoped for but he should really know better by now… wild animals fascinate me. Encounters with them are enchanting and I rarely know how long I’ve spent in their company.

Our day started after a sleepless night, an early start (5am), a couple of metro swaps, a shinkansen (the only way to travel in Japan!), a local train, a bus journey and a 30 minute walk through the village and forest.

Tired? Yes, absolutely.

But very excited.

And then we were greeted by this sight…

Our First Snow Monkey Encounter

Of course I took multiple photos just in case he was the only one we saw. I really needn’t have worried. As we walked down the path from the visitor centre to the monkey’s private onsen, we quickly realised there were a couple of hundred of them.

Count the Monkeys…

So I took a few shots… and spent ages just watching them live their lives (click on the images to see them in more detail).

I’d highly recommend a visit if you can. It’s expensive to get there unless you have a Japan Rail Pass but otherwise very do-able as a day trip. We went in the off-season and realised there was no need to go quite as early as we did. If you are going in a warmer season, there’s a good chance they won’t be in the onsen. We only saw one monkey take a dip and it was right at the end of our visit.  In winter I expect the crowds are busier and the trip itself is a bit more complicated with the snow! When we go back we’ll be heading there in winter for sure.

You can find out more details about how to get there on this website, by checking out this very helpful blog or going to the park’s website.

Like what you see here? Many of these images will soon be available as prints via my shop. x

2 thoughts on “Visiting the Snow Monkeys

  1. Toni Broome says:

    Your photos are fabulous, it’s such a different experience without all the snow. Interesting that they jostle for the best position in the onsen in the winter but few use it in the better weather but still there are so many around, can I ask what month you visited for it to be so lovely and green?

    • Jo Foo says:

      Hi Toni,

      Thanks for your lovely comments. We were there in mid-September. It’s such an amazing experience. I’ll definitely plan another trip to it if we head back to Japan. I can only imagine how much they want to be in the hot spring in winter! Thanks again for your blog! It definitely helped us find our way there easily and we referred a few other people to it too! x

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