Bathing apes: Jigokudani's snow monkey onsen
Seeing Japan's fabled snow monkeys is much easier in the world of guidebooks than reality. Their natural habitat lies deep within the mountains of Nagano and requires a serious journey. After the one and a half hours on the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano, there is more than an hour on a rickety local line, a long bus ride to the trailhead, capped off by a mile-long hike up snow-covered mountain trail.
So Jigokudani -- "Hell Valley" -- isn’t Japan's most convenient vacation spot. However, the nihon-zaru -- a.k.a Macaca fuscata, a.k.a. the Japanese macaque, a.k.a. the "snow monkey" -- has an inordinate ability to draw the world's attention for a single and very specific reason: their distinctively human-like habit of climbing into natural hot springs to warm up during the winter months.
Jigokudani's Yaen-Koen ("Monkey Park") is basically the only place you can observe this behavior in the wild. If you've ever seen a documentary or photos of monkeys in hot springs, chances are they were taken here.
Inside the Yaen-Koen
In spite of its name, the Monkey Park isn’t a zoo. There are no cages or walls. Aside from a visitor's center, the only real facility is a roomy stone bathtub built atop a natural hot spring. (Sorry, humans not allowed in.)
The monkeys don't even live on the premises. Like tiny, furry versions of salarymen, they commute. Attracted by little more than the chance to warm up in the tub and the occasional snack, they descend from the snowy mountain peaks around 9am and return home around 4pm, which also, conveniently, squares with the business hours of the park. And since monkeys don't take holidays, neither does the park. It's open year round.
Young monkeys chase each other around the park, playing games of tag that quickly degenerate into rough-and-tumble wrestling matches. Adults tend to keep to themselves aside from the occasional territorial spat.
But in the bathtub, all the normal rules of monkey society are temporarily suspended. It’s an all-inclusive, full-time relaxation zone -- no tussles allowed. Watching the park's alpha male -- fancifully dubbed the Dragon King -- dozing blissfully in the bath surrounded by his harem of females, it's hard not to feel a little envious.
The Do's and Dont's of the Monkey Park
The park's monkeys are completely used to humans and walk freely among (and occasionally on) the visitors. For the most part they all but ignore people, but there are a few rules to keep in mind. Remember the old saying "monkey see, monkey do?" Now's your chance to experience it from the other side of the equation.
Don't pet or try to touch the monkeys. Never stare into their eyes or bare your teeth, even in a smile, as these behaviors are considered acts of aggression in the monkey world. As the Yaen-Koen site says: "The monkeys here are not lovable animals. If they feel a threat to their lives, they will try to scare, or bite. Observe quietly and as far back as possible."
If you follow the monkey rules, you might even make a fuzzy friend or two. Early one morning in the women's outdoor bath at Korakukan Onsen, a popular (if rustic) spa located just down the hill from Monkey Park, I found myself face to face with a monkey apparently out for a private dip before heading to the Monkey Park's more crowded bath.
Making sure to follow monkey etiquette, I stepped past and slipped into the tub right next to her. Sharing the bath with a distant primate relative made my day -- and made me realize that when it comes to relaxation, perhaps humans and monkeys have more in common than you'd think.
From Tokyo, take the JR Shinkansen to Nagano. Then, switch to the Nagano Dentetsu line to Yudanaka station. From Yudanaka station, take a taxi, or a bus bound for Kanbayashi Onsen to the trailhead to Jigokudani Yaen Koen.
contacts, cost and opening hours
Yaen-Koen: tel. 0269 33 4379, www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp
Cost: ¥500 adult, ¥250 child