It’s the very picture of serenity – Japanese snow monkeys soaking in a hot spring, eyes closed, groomed by their family members, steam rising, safe from snow drifting softly through the sky. It’s one of the most iconic images of winter in Japan, and one of the most fascinating and endearing (not to mention, adorable!) wildlife experiences in the country. Located in Yamanouchi, Nagano prefecture, Jigokudani Monkey Park is the place to spot these wild monkeys enjoying a hot bath. Visitors can observe the macaques in their natural environment, whilst also enjoying a traditional minshuku lodging experience of their own.
Japanese macaques, commonly called snow monkeys, are native to Japan, and are the most northern-living primate in the world (except for humans). The macaques of Nagano prefecture spend their summers foraging across Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, moving down into the Yokoyu River valley during winter. Jigokudani, translating to ‘Hell’s Valley’, is a geothermally active area of hot springs. It has been adopted by macaques as their favourite relaxation spot over the last few decades.
Curiously, monkeys typically hate getting wet, just like cats. So why then are they taking hours out of their day for a nice hot onsen?
Jigokudani Onsen Korakukan
Taking advantage of the hot springs, the public baths of Jigokudani Onsen Korakukan were opened in 1964. It is one of the most famous winter onsen destinations in the country, with snow covering the ground 4 months of the year. Jigokudani is a minshuku, a Japanese-style bed and breakfast with 12 rooms, offering the full ryokan stay experience, and has both indoor and outdoor onsens.
The opening of the minshuku at Jigokudani had unexpected effects on the local macaques. Soon after it opened, macaques were spotted copying humans. They entered the baths to warm up in the winter months, and de-stress in the heat. It’s not a natural instinct at all, but a learned behaviour based on humans’ love for onsens. Eventually, a special bathing pool was set up exclusively for the macaques, and by 2003, it’s estimated that one third of the local macaque population come for a regular bath.
Researchers have learned a lot about hierarchical family structures based on bathing. The more dominant macaques use the bath more, with lower tier monkeys sometimes excluded altogether. The only downside of spending all winter in a hot bath? Getting out, of course! Luckily, Japanese macaques have thick fur to protect them from the cold while they’re dripping wet.
How To See Snow Monkeys In Japan
The monkeys use their own private onsen year-round, but during the warmer months there’s a chance the pool might be empty. The best time to see them is between December and March, when the park is covered in snow. Accessing Jigokudani requires a bit of walking, with one path from the parking lot taking 10-15 minutes, and the other 25-40 minutes from Kanbayashi Onsen.
Seeing the monkeys can be done as a day trip. But to really enjoy the relaxing nature of the onsen experience, it’s highly recommended to stay in one of the ryokans in the area, and enjoy your own onsen! Getting to Jigokudani Monkey Park can be done by road or public transport. It’s about an hour’s drive from Nagano, or 3 1/2 hours drive from Tokyo.
Japanese snow monkeys soaking in hot springs with their troupe, warm and cozy admidst the falling snowflakes is one of the quintessential images of winter in Japan. For visitors during the winter months, Jigokudai Monkey Park offers a chance to see this charming behaviour up close. For visitors coming off-season, the chance of seeing the bathing monkeys may not be the same, but luckily, there are some great minshuku nearby for your own relaxing onsen experience.