The Japanese macaque, more commonly known as the snow monkey, is the most northern-living primate (except humans, of course) in the world. While the Japanese Macaques live in a variety of habitats and occupy three of the four main Japanese islands, you probably recognize them as the hot tubbing primates playing in the thermal pools at Jigokudani — a behavior which has brought them notoriety.
The Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano, part of the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park — known to locals as Shigakogen — is located in the Yokoyu River valley. Covered in snow for a third of the year, Jigokudani translates to “Hell’s Valley,” not because it’s a terrible place to visit, but rather for the thermal vents that populate the frozen ground, surrounded by steep cliffs and hostile forests.
Okay, so maybe it’s not the Bahamas, but that hasn’t stopped the Japanese Macaque from calling it home and sanctuary. During the day, the monkeys descend the steep cliffs to lounge and groom each other in the onsen (hot springs). They return to their forest haven at night, only to make the trek again the next day.
The park was established in 1964 when the monkeys were seen bathing in small onsen, and larger pools were constructed for them. Since the park attendants feed the monkeys, they can be seen in the park year round. It’s privately owned by the Nagano Dentetsu Railway Company.
How to get there
Jigokudani Monkey Park is in Nagano prefecture of Japan. It’s 2.5 km from the town of Shibu Onsen, 7km from Yudanaka and 33km from Nagano City. To get there via public transportation, it’s easy to take an express bus from Nagano station, get off at the “Snow Monkey Park” bus stop.
What to consider
- The park is open year-round, and it’s possible to see the monkeys in all four seasons, but they congregate in the pools the most during the winter months.
- Admission is 800 yen (~$7) for adults and 400 yen for children (under 18).
- It’s a 10-25 minute walk (~2km) on a narrow footpath through the forest from the entrance to the pools where the monkeys congregate.
- Don’t feed the monkeys.
- No pets are allowed.
- Be sure to wear appropriate clothing and good shoes as there’s often a lot of snow and the ground is slippery.
- The macaques are very curious and friendly, so they might come close, but resist the urge to touch them.
- This is the only place in the whole world to see snow monkeys bathing in hot springs.