It was misty and cold that morning in the Japanese Alps, much like what I had anticipated.
As I parked the car at the start of the 1.5-kilometre long walking path that would lead me to the monkey-friendly onsen, I welcomed the leisurely trek with open arms, hoping it would settle the discomfort caused by an all-too-short night’s sleep on an unfamiliarly stiff tatami mat that left my body aching.
It was my last day in the otherwise rather unexciting Nagano prefecture and I longed for an epic experience that would be for the books. I kept what I believed what was going to be the best part for the end; these macaques would be the succulent dessert to the bland main dish that had been alpine Japan.
The so-called Hell’s Valley turned out to be quite lovely, in fact. Scattered with natural hot springs, abrupt cliffs, and rugged forests, the trail indeed revitalised my body while my mind grew increasingly restless, wondering “if we were there yet” at every turn, eager to finally meet the legendary snow monkeys.
And, at last, I did.
During my highly informative visit, I learned that Nihonzaru (Japanese monkeys in Japanese) live in a matrilineal society; females will typically stay in the same group for their entire life while males will be nomadic, leaving their natal family before they are sexually mature. The troops are highly hierarchic, and specific groups hold great authority over others, especially when it comes to the coveted alpha male position and the younger specimens.
The feminist in me was wooed by the fact that dominant females form an extremely strong bond over the years, sometimes even going as far as raising newborns that are not their own – the concept of monkey BFFs is kind of adorable.
I couldn’t believe how remarkably human-like the macaques were. I was mesmerised by their complex interactions and the oddly familiar shape of their hands – although I’m sure good ol’ Darwin would most definitely not think of it as ‘odd’. If the photo above isn’t proof enough that Homo Sapiens are direct descendants of chimpanzees, then I don’t know what is.
I stayed at the onsen for over an hour; my inclination to indulge my fascination for the animal reign could have very well persuaded me to stay longer if it wasn’t for the train I had to catch back to Tokyo. Rarely have I been so enthralled by a tourist attraction; perhaps it was because of their mindbogglingly relatable features, which made it physically difficult for me to move and focus on anything besides their expressive eyes, their willowy fingers, their meaningful cries.
These monkeys will forever hold a special place in my heart ♥
Monkeys In Japan & Jigokudani: Good To Know
- This is not a zoo. I am firmly against animal exploitation of any form, and this park didn’t feel like a tourist trap whatsoever. As you can see, monkeys are free to wander around as they please and they seem far more curious about than frightened by human presence. There is only one warden on site, and he only intervenes (by shouting keywords) when monkeys jump on visitors or try to steal something from their pockets. Animal rights are something I hold very dear to my heart, and I didn’t feel like I was encouraging any kind of detrimental industry by visiting Jigokudani.
- Do you need a car to get there? No, you don’t. If you’d rather travel by rail (which I highly recommend you do, as car rentals in Japan are very expensive), get off at either Yudanaka, Nagano or Shibu and take the bus to Kanbayashi Onsen. From there, it’s a 35-minute walk through the bucolic alpine forest.
- Do not talk to or stare at the macaques. They might look almost human, but they are wild animals and might perceive your curious gesture as a sign of aggression. Also, don’t EVER feed them.
- Entry at Jigokudani costs 500 yen (roughly $5).
- I stayed at ryokan Yudanaka Seifuso. If you don’t have a car, the owners will take you to the monkey park’s parking lot.
- The park is located two kilometers from the parking lot, so you’ll need to walk a bit to get there. It’s actually a good thing as the scenery is stunning. Make sure you wear closed-off and waterproof shoes, as the trail can get quite muddy.
- If you can’t make it all the way to the Nagano prefecture, there is a similar albeit much less picturesque monkey park in Arashiyama, just outside of Kyoto.