Warm up with the Snow Monkeys
While Japan is without the magnificent marsupials that Australia seems to have in droves, it does have plenty of monkeys and if you're visiting during the winter then getting close to these primates relaxing in a hot spring is an experience you will keep with you forever.
Iconic images of Japan traditionally revolve around cherry blossoms, bullet trains, geisha and of course, Mt Fuji. But with the recent rise in visitor numbers and the growing popularity of photo-sharing sites, word is getting out about the Japanese Macaques, and these guys are rapidly clambering their way onto thousands of travel ‘bucket lists’.
They are mountain dwellers and therefore can be found all across Japan and throughout the four seasons. In fact you’ll find them in most Japanese zoos and mountain parks here, as they are popular with crowds year round. However if you want to see the ‘snow monkeys’ warming up in an onsen, there’s really only one place to head for and that’s Nagano Prefecture, about three and a half hours from Tokyo by train…
Jigokudani Monkey Park
Located about 40 minutes by bus from Nagano Station, you can find the world famous Jigokudani Monkey Park. This is the spot responsible for the majority of the photos you might have seen featuring the macaques enjoying a hot bath. The monkeys generally bathe all year round but it is during the snow season – the best times being January and February – that the man-made rock pool and it’s hairy bathers become particularly photogenic.
The park has a small visitor’s center where you can all learn about the monkeys, who the past and present ‘alpha monkeys’ are, and the history of this primate sanctuary. They’ll also hammer home the two main rules of not feeding or touching the monkeys, no matter how tempting it might be!
Keep in mind you’ll need to have a pair of sturdy shoes as you’ll have a 15-30 minute walk to get to the pool – in the snow if it’s winter! Remember also that now that the secret is out, there are plenty of other budding nature photographers hoping to get that perfect shot – so patience is key! Finally, if you can’t wait to get there but still want to see the monkeys, you can access the park’s live camera that keeps a watchful eye on the simian swimmers.
If you’d like to go one step further and get in the water with the monkeys, there is a small Japanese inn located on the trail leading up to the monkey park that lets you do just that. Korakukan only has 12 rooms, but for guests who stay there, there is a rotenburo (outdoor hot spring) that is popular with the local primates, and if you’re lucky, they’ll come and join you for a dip.
The monkeys have gotten quite accustomed to sharing their bath water with humans, but it’s best to remember that they prefer that you keep a respectable distance from them. If you’ve summoned up the courage to get in with them, remember the golden rule of public baths…no touching!