When you hear a name like Jigokudani Monkey Park, it is easy to conjure up thoughts of unethical animal treatment. It is sadly all too common around the world that animal tourism, and particularly animal “parks”, negatively impact living creatures and their environment. When I first realised that Japan’s famous onsen-loving Snow Monkeys were only a short drive from the ski resort, I honestly had reservations about going. However, after much research, my mind was changed and I decided to pay a visit.
Jigokudani Monkey Park was an hour-long bus trip through fields of towering powder snow from the ski town of Nozawa Onsen. I had always thought that the park would be in the middle of a town but it is actually part of a much larger National Park. Upon entering the gates it became obvious just how much the Japanese want to protect the area. No plastic bags or food were allowed in at all, and we did not see a single piece of litter within the park.
The walk from the entry to the onsen was around 1.6km long through towering trees which followed a picturesque stream down below. It was snowing heavily as we wandered along the gently winding path making it feel like we had entered some kind of wintery fairy tale. Occasionally, a few snow monkeys would be spotted on the side of the path or in the trees going about their business. It was only a taste of things to come.
Jigokudani literally translates to “hell valley” due to all the volcanic and geothermal activity in the area. This means there are plenty of hot springs and dramatic steam. When we went to Jigokudani, it was only 20km from a volcanic eruption (although we were not aware at the time).
Eventually we reached the stairs to the onsen viewing area and that is where the experience really began. Snow crunched beneath our much-loved winter boots as we inched closer to the action. The steam rose densely from the stone bathing area into the below freezing air. Even from a distance you could make out the shapes of monkeys hanging out over the sides of the onsen. It was pretty easy to feel jealous of their genius idea to get in the hot water as we stood in the freezing cold. Winter is the best time to view the Snow Monkeys because the cool weather makes the naturally hot onsen water all-the-more appealing.
Although colloquially known as Snow Monkeys, they are really Japanese Macaques and are unique to the region. It was phenomenal how human-like the monkeys are. Whether they were hanging out with their friends, cuddling up in the cold together, helping clean each other, or bickering like siblings, it was really easy to see the parallels. As soon as there was any monkey drama nearby, every other monkey in the onsen would crane their necks to get a good view of it all unfolding.
Japanese macaques have been in the region for thousands of years but the Jigokudani Monkey Park was officially created within the National Park in 1964. The natural hot spring the monkeys bathe in has been there for all time, but the stones you see surrounding it are man-made to keep the water in. The monkeys are free to roam and forage, and during the summer months they mostly leave the onsen area in preference of the surrounding forest.
If you are around the area it is well worth seeing Japan’s famous onsen-adoring Snow Monkeys. It is important to ensure you follow all the rules when visiting the Park to ensure that the Snow Monkey Park remains a place of ethical human-animal interaction. Bring sturdy shoes for the walk and a good lens so you aren’t tempted to get too close.
PRO TIP: don’t forget to visit nearby onsen towns like Shibu Onsen and Nozawa Onsen
- No food
- No plastic bags
- Do not touch the monkeys
- Do not feed the monkeys
- Stay at least 1m away from the monkeys
- No special photography (drones, selfie sticks, tripods)
THE NEED-TO-KNOW STUFF
Cost of Park Entry: 800 yen adult / 400 yen child
Cost of Tour (includes Park Entry): 58,000 yen
Opening hours: 8:30-17:00 (Apr-Oct) and 9:00-16:00 (Nov-Mar)
Time needed: 2-3 hours
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