Who hasn’t seen online the famous photos of the Japanese Snow Monkeys relaxing in their hot springs? I was no exception and had to get there and see this for myself, little did I know that the events would make the experience slightly different for me and my other half. Ready to board the bus in Nagano, nobody was able to tell us if the park would even be open. Heavy snow came down during the night and chances were high that we would be going there for nothing. After hesitating for half an hour, trying to get more information out of people with no success, we paid the hefty 3.000 Yen each for our tickets and jumped on a bus hoping that we might be able to get in.
Snow storm and tricky path:
On the way to Jigokudani we hoped that the snow would stop. We weren’t the only ones: a couple of other people decided to make the trip as well and all of us were delighted to see that after 30 minutes in there, the snow seemed to be dying out. How wrong we were… By the time the bus dropped our little party off, conditions had deteriorated to what can only be described as a ‘whiteout’, the furious blizzard reducing visibility to less than 20 metres and the entire landscape buried beneath over a metre of snow.
Working together we eventually managed to discern the path to the entrance we were immediately confronted by a a sign stating “Danger, road closed”… When we all thought that was it, that we reached the end of our journey already, a lady came out to tell us that we could take the road but at our own risks and, that although the park remained technically open, the freeze had damaged the plumbing supplying the hot spring water to the onsen and thus, our chances of actually seeing the monkeys were slim. At that point, after going so far along the way, covered in snow, we thought: why not keep going? We’ve seen icy paths before, and the idea of adventuring through waist-deep snow amidst a frozen pine forest held a certain charm. The news of the pipe bothered me a little though, mainly because I had thought this was a natural hot spring. But more on this later.
Onward we went then, up slippery staircases and a long and somewhat treacherous mountain path, surrounded by scenery that we could only describe as Narnia. My scarf was completely frozen solid, as was my hair but my camera was doing well and we kept going, arriving to the dreaded stairs up to the entrance. That was the dangerous part: with the many people already passing through for the past two hours the snow had melted and frozen right back after. The stairs were extremely slippery and the handles were too tricky to grasp. We finally made it to the entrance and decided to press on and get to the warm little hut at the end.
Entering a frozen hot spring and discovering the Snow Monkeys.
The question of whether we’d see the monkeys was answered quickly. We’d hardly taken a few steps in to the park before a scuttling ball of brown fur came hurtling out of the swirling snow and anchored itself rather securely to Robb’s left leg. So they were here at least. The onsen however, less so.
Rather than the steaming spring pools and bathing snow monkeys that appear on the brochures, we arrived to find perhaps two dozen wet and shivering monkeys sitting around the onsen, many with thick snow settled on their fur, all staring forlornly and occasionally dipping a foot or hand in to a body of water that would bring no respite from the cold today.
Frozen, hugging one another, and hoping their source of heat would come back, those monkeys had clearly grown to rely on this place for their survival.
And herein lies something of a moral dilemma.
As we arrived at the onsen, there was a baby monkey no larger than a kitten, battered by the snow and wind, and with no parent in sight, this little fella was clearly on his last legs. Though crawling when we’d arrived he soon collapsed and curled up as the snow began to cover him. The park attendants stood by impassively, recording this little animal’s demise with a video camera and insisting that no one interfere, stating simply that “nature must take it’s course”.
Fair enough, you’d think. After all, naturalists don’t go wading in to assist every time a baby wildebeest gets brought down by the hyenas.
The problem is, it’s not ‘nature’ is it? Monkeys don’t naturally take hot baths. By providing and maintaining this place, nature has been altered. In the past, the monkeys would have had defences, instincts, and behaviours, honed through generations of evolution that would have allowed them to endure the cold weather. By introducing this very unnatural onsen in to their environment, those old behaviours or skills have been lost, so that today they rely upon the hot water for their very survival. And when it is taken away, they have no contingency, no instinct to fall back on. And so they sit, and wait, and freeze.
I don’t know which side of the fence I’d be on here. My own instinct would have been to pick him up, wrap him inside my coat and wait to see if his family came back for him. But then again, maybe enduring hardships like this will be the thing that encourages this monkey troupe to abandon the false god they have so recently adopted and return to the ways of their wilder brethren.
When and from where should you get to the Snow Monkeys Park?
You can still visit this place, after all the monkeys are not coming for you but for a onsen and there is no direct interaction with the monkeys. The Snow Monkeys Park can be visited all year around but is certainly at its best during winter. If you are visiting in January-February, make sure to constantly check their website and the weather forecast as the park will close if it snows too much, since the roads need to be cleared up.
You can stay near the park (the hotel in the picture below, Korakukan Onsen, is located right next to the park and is said to have an onsen some of the monkeys visit) if you want to but visiting from Nagano is easily doable and the city itself is worth a visit. The food and the temples are worth adding a day to your itinerary. I am glad we did. You will have no problem getting a bus or a train to Jigokudani Snow Monkeys Park from Nagano’s train station.
You’ll find a few good hotels in the city, we decided to opt for the Chisun Grand Nagano and would recommend it.
Practical information about Jigokudani Yaen-Koen: Snow Monkey Park.
From Nagano you can buy a 3.000 yen ticket including transport and entrance to the Snow Monkey Park.
The bus will take 40 minutes (or a bit more depending on the weather) and from your stop you will have to walk 30 more minutes to get to the park (or an hour if, like us, you’re doing this in the middle of a snow storm). Without ticket the bus will cost you 1.400 yen each ways.
You could take the train but you will then have to catch another bus to get to the park.
Admission to the park is 800 yen.
The park is open from 9.00 to 16.00 (November to March) and from 8.30 to 17.00 (April to October)
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