Ever since I saw snow monkeys bathing in a hot spring on the cover of a magazine six years ago, I have wanted to see them live in person. When I finally had the opportunity to see the monkeys, it was more amazing than I imagined.
The snow monkeys live in a protected park called, Jigokudani (Hell’s Valley) Yaenkoen, located in Yamanouchi town in Yokoyu River Valley, Nagano Prefecture in northern Japan. There is a hike to the park entrance, where you pay 500 yen, and then hike some more to the hot spring where the snow monkeys spend their time.
The best time to view the snow monkeys is in the winter after snow has fallen and covered the grounds, usually in January or February. So, be prepared for the cold and snowy, wet conditions. It was snowing and windy when I went, but seeing the monkeys was well worth braving the elements. Definitely dress warmly and wear shoes or boots that will keep your feet warm and dry as the walking path can get muddy, slushy, and slippery depending on the weather, snow melting in the sun, or amount of foot traffic. Some people wore crampons on their shoes to improve traction on the snow and ice. Along the path, there are little signs pointing out other birds and wildlife that you might be lucky enough to see as you walk through the park.
As you get closer to the hot spring, you start to see the snow monkeys, Japanese Macaques, along the river and path just meandering around, sitting, watching, or digging for food. You cannot miss the monkeys with their light brown fur and red faces. Sometimes, you can catch a great picture while they are sitting there watching you and what you are doing. As you reach the hot spring pools, you will see other visitors with cameras crowded around the area. At times it seems that there might be more humans than monkeys, but the humans are polite and wait their turn to snap their best shots of the monkeys.
Before I forget, the park has some rules you should follow: Do not feed the snow monkeys. Do not touch or scare the monkeys. Be careful of wearing shiny objects as the monkeys might be attracted to them and want to keep one as a souvenir. There are other rules, but the most important one is to avoid direct eye contact with a snow monkey. In animal language, direct eye contact is a sign of aggression. So as you stare at a snow monkey because it is so cute, you might be surprised by an attack. Interestingly, you can point a camera right in front of their face to get a close up shot and it does not seem to faze them.
When you finally secure your spot somewhere on the edge of the hot spring pools, you have arrived at the main event. There are two pools, an upper one and a lower one accessed through a narrow and steep set of three to five steps. Use the rope attached to a pole to navigate the steps as icy and wet conditions can make the steps slippery. The snow monkeys are fun to watch from any angle and sometimes they might run by you or in front of you.
Now you can relax and enjoy watching the snow monkeys take an onsen with steam rising in a mist around them. The snow monkeys are quite calm and seem oblivious to the humans watching them and taking pictures of them. They sit in groups and sometimes groom each other. They might swim around to various spots, chase each other, or leave and enter the pools. I loved watching the mothers and babies interacting together. At one point, one of the mothers became aggressive toward another monkey as it came too close to her baby. As happens with animals, you might also occasionally witness a monkey urinate or defecate. Just enjoy the experience. It truly was a privilege that the snow monkeys would allow so many human strangers a view into their living space and social milieu.
You leave whenever you desire, probably when your camera memory disk is full or notice that your fingers are frozen because you had taken your gloves off to take pictures. You hike back out the same way you came in. On the way out is the best time to stop in the little shop by the park entrance. You can sit by a hot stove to warm your fingers and toes, order a warm drink, view pictures of snow monkeys in various poses, buy souvenirs of course, and reflect on a perfect experience.
For a sneak peek, see the snow monkeys via this live cam.