He stuck his tongue out at me.
Right there, staring straight into my camera lens, this Japanese macaque had the audacity to poke out his tongue!
John and I couldn’t help but giggle.
Visiting Japan’s Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in winter had been high on our bucket list and here we were, right amongst them all in their natural habitat; snow monkeys to our right, to our left and everywhere in between.
SO MANY FLUFFY MONKEYS.
Their furry little coats and hoods looked so snug around their faces, while their scarily human-like fingers and toes had me contemplating the incredible mysteries of both creation and evolution.
Suddenly, there was a hideous screeching sound and I turned to see an adult monkey suddenly plunge onto the back of another, claws digging into his back.
The monkey under attack snarled, baring his ugly yellow teeth. So much for being cute…
The two monkeys screamed at each other while the defendant tried to shake off his enemy. But the aggressor had him pinned down to the snow.
I imagined the aggressor whispering something into his victim’s ear along the lines of,
“If you ever come near my missus and my kids again, I will end you.”
“This is what you get when you steal my food.”
Whatever it was, the message was effectively delivered as the macaques eventually retreated from one another.
Just another day at the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in Japan.
John and I had travelled by bullet train – shinkansen – to the Nagano prefecture, about 226 kilometres away from Tokyo, to get to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
We were in the heart of Japan and being late January, we had entered a winter wonderland.
We chose to DIY our trip rather than take a tour, which saved us a little money, although it meant more planning.
I can wholeheartedly say it was one of the best experiences of my life and worth every second.
JOURNEY INTO THE SNOW MONKEY PARK
The track into the park was icy and slippery; at times I wondered if we were ever going to actually reach the entrance.
There’s a 1.6km walk into the main park area. It hadn’t seemed like a big deal initially, but when you’re trudging through snow and ice, the distance suddenly seemed like a marathon.
People of all ages were walking the track, from young children to older men and women, with varying levels of fitness and preparedness, judging by the number of high heels and ballet flats I saw.
Even those in sturdy shoes were not immune to stepping on a smooth piece of ice – some only skidding before correcting their balance, others falling over in dramatic fashions, dignity lost.
At the entrance, there was quite a crowd waiting to get in and we wondered if we would see much.
We didn’t have anything to worry about.
We were greeted by dozens of furry little creatures, big and small, individuals and in groups, scattered everywhere, next to the hot springs, in the hot springs, in the river, on the track, tumbling down from rocky hill faces and just chilling in trees.
The monkeys spent a lot of time foraging for food, their creepy little fingers pulling up blocks of snow and ice to find what might be underneath.
Other monkeys snuggled up to each other to stay warm.
Most of the time, the monkeys groomed one another.
But by far the cutest scenes were of the baby snow monkeys.
Some of them would huddle into the warmth of their mum, while others stayed warm in the natural hot springs. Occasionally they’d sit out and cool off, their fur damp from the steam.
And then, out of nowhere, a monkey would suddenly leap metres across the pool and start chasing another macaque, who’d somehow pissed it off.
Nearby tourists would scream and scatter, fearing a monkey attack would put an end to their day trip.
THE JAPANESE MACAQUES & THEIR HOME
The Japanese macaques are indigenous to Japan. They are covered with a furry coat to help them survive during the winter months. They often sit in or hang around by the natural hot springs to stay warm in the harsh winters.
The Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is their natural habitat. It’s not a zoo – no one owns the animals and there are no fences blocking them from humans. They don’t do tricks and they’re not forced to interact with tourists.
Sometimes, the monkeys roam over to the nearby ryokan and have been known to join humans in their onsen!
Park staff feed some barley to the macaques, as during the winter time there is little food around other than tree bark and winter buds. In the warmer months, the monkeys search the mountain for wild vegetables, nuts, flowers and fruits.
Visitors are not allowed to touch the monkeys and definitely not allowed to feed them anything.
In fact, John’s half-eaten apple was nearly confiscated prior to entering and we were warned a monkey would attack and steal it from him if he was holding it in the park.
BREAKING RULES…OR SAVING A MONKEY?
As we walked back along the track, we noticed one monkey had plastic in his mouth. He had obviously tried to get into the remaining crumbs inside a muesli bar wrapper.
We don’t like seeing animals with plastic rubbish in their mouths. As scuba divers, we are saddened by the number of marine creatures and birds which die after ingesting plastic.
But if we had tried to take the plastic directly off the monkey, it probably would have attacked us. We decided to give the monkey some leftover apple in exchange for the rubbish.
Yes, yes, I know we were not allowed to feed the monkeys, although this was outside the park area and on the main access track. In our opinion, fruit was far better than plastic.
The macaque took the plastic wrapper out of its mouth and grabbed the apple to eat instead.
Maybe the monkey was smart enough not to eat any plastic. But we made a judgement call that apple was a far better option than a monkey ingesting plastic.
What would you have done?
TIPS FOR VISITING THE JIGOKUDANI SNOW MONKEY PARK IN WINTER
In winter, the track can be very slippery. You’ll need to wear sturdy and grippy shoes so you don’t skid. The walk is doable for all ages, but you will need to take your time and be prepared to walk for about 30-40 minutes before getting to the park entrance.
Be sure to dress warmly. The best option is to wear layers which you can take off if you get hot walking.
Don’t pat the monkeys. A guard will yell out to you if you try to do this.
Monkeys can attack. Keep a safe distance and don’t get between a mother and her baby, or between two fighting monkeys!
HOW TO GET TO THE JIGOKUDANI SNOW MONKEY PARK FROM TOKYO
While there are many tour companies who can take you to the snow monkey park, we decided to it ourselves.
We had to get from Tokyo to Nagano – approximately 226km, but just over an hour on the bullet train.
Here’s what we did:
*Took a train to Ueno Station, one of the stations where you catch the shinkansen to Nagano.
*We purchased tickets on the day, but had some difficulties due to our limited Japanese and the kiosk manager’s limited English.
*You can choose an unreserved or reserved spot on the shinkansen. A reserved spot means you get a designated seat, but an unreserved ticket means it is first-in-first-served for seats in the main carriage. If you miss out on a seat, you’ll have to stand in the aisle until one becomes available. We had a reserved ticket on our way to Nagano, but unreserved on the way home. After walking in the snow all day, standing in an aisle for 80 minutes was not much fun!
*From Nagano, there are many people who can help direct you to get to the Snow Monkey Park. This website provides details of the different options.
*We took a bus from Nagano to the start of the Snow Monkey Park at Kanbanyashi. We purchased a ticket from Nagano station that also included the entrance fee to the park.
*Once we arrived at Kanbanyashi, we still had to walk a little further to get to the trail entrance. Along this street are ryokan and small shops, with a souvenir store at the very entrance to the trail. This is the last shop you will have access to, so if you need something to drink or to hire better shoes, now’s the time to do it.
*From the entrance of the Park, it’s a 1.6km walk. In winter, the track is covered in snow and ice which made it very slippery. Take your time and watch out for icy patches.
*If you prepaid for your ticket, you can go through a fast line at the park entrance, otherwise you’ll need to wait in the queue. Our one-day pass (which was included the bus tickets) cost ￥3,200 each.
*Give yourself several hours to spend time with the monkeys. Watch out for slippery spots and hold on to the rails when going up and down the stairs.
*Make sure you have had something to eat prior to entering the park as there is nowhere to purchase food until you are back out of the park.
WHAT TO WEAR TO THE JIGOKUDANI SNOW MONKEY PARK IN WINTER
- Here’s what we wore to stay warm:
- Fleece lined leggings/warm trousers
- Waterproof sturdy snow boots
- Merino wool socks
- Thermal tops (1 x base layer, 1 x mid layer)
- Waterproof jacket (we wore our ski and snowboard jackets)
- Warm hat
- Woolen scarf (merino wool is lightweight and warm)
- Waterproof Gloves
- Other items to bring:
- Camera: we used our Nikon D7200 and 70-300mm Tamron lens
- Waterproof camera bag
- Bottled water
- A sealed snack once you have left the park – DO NOT EAT INSIDE THE PARK OR A MONKEY WILL PINCH IT!
- Japanese yen for tickets and food
- Lip balm to protect against the cold
DISCUSS: Have you ever been to a snow monkey park? What do you think about these cheeky monkeys?