Where to see snow monkeys in Japan

It felt a bit like we were watching a group of human adults and children around a pool. The likeness was uncanny.
The pink-faced snow monkeys of Jigokudani Monkey Park, near Nagano, are some of Japan’s biggest celebrities. Visitors here can watch the macaques as they play, groom each other and bathe in hot springs, with no fences between humans and animals. While the experience is perhaps not as naturalistic as some might hope – the macaques are tempted into the water with the offer of food, and the small area can get crowded – seeing the snow monkeys is a memorable experience bringing you up close and personal with wild animals as they display behaviours remarkably similar to our own.

“You notice the relationships of the monkeys bathing,” says Sam Knight, Responsible Travel’s very own wildlife photographer extraordinaire. “The older macaques sat in the pools calmly, bathing and looking very relaxed, whilst the young macaques barrelled around the edges, jumping in, dunking the others heads in and generally terrorising the adults who would brush them off nonchalantly. It felt a bit like we were watching a group of human adults and children around a pool.”

“The likeness was uncanny. When we started noticing the details of the monkeys from their fingernails to their faces it really hammered home to me how they’re not so dissimilar to us. It was quite a humbling experience by the end and my interest in wildlife photography shot through the roof. Being able to be so close and watch like a fly on the wall was really amazing.”

You’ll see the monkeys grooming each other, sunbathing, and the young ones wrestling, which is an important way of establishing the hierarchy within the troop. Obviously you’re not allowed to bathe with them, feed them or touch them in any way, but you can get very close, leading to some great photo opportunities. “Initially I was shocked by just how close you could get – we’re talking less than a metre from the edge of the pool itself,” Sam continues. “At times the monkeys would get out of the pool and join the tourists on the side of the pools. They are free to move about and you have to watch the youngsters a bit as they’re quite brave and curious!”

The snow monkey & the hot springs

So popular have the Jigokudani macaques become that there is even a Japan snow monkeys live cam where you can follow their ablutions and antics from afar. It’s not surprising that they’ve captured the public imagination. Monkeys have been a major part of Japanese culture for centuries, turning up in folklore tales, artworks – proverbs too: “Even monkeys fall from trees” – we all make mistakes.

Macaques are the only native monkey species in Japan, and they are found in several forested areas around the country. The macaques of Jigokudani however are the only troop known to have discovered the pleasures of a hot spring without any human encouragement. It started back in the 1960s, when a solitary female was spotted having a relaxing soak. Eventually, as more and more macaques began to join her, a pool was dug just for them for hygiene reasons. And because, be honest, would you really want to have a bath with a bunch of wild monkeys?

As for why they bathe – scientific research has shown that the macaques that are bathing have lower stress levels – though you could probably tell that just from the serene expressions on their faces.

Where are the snow monkeys in Japan?

Jigokudani Monkey Park, part of Joshinetsu Kogen National Park and close to the city of Nagano on Honshu, Japan’s main island, is home to several hundred Japanese macaques, which during the winter come down to bathe in the park’s thermal hot springs. Blanketed in snow between December and March, Jigokudani means ‘Valley of Hell’ due to the abundant volcanic activity in the area (hence the thermal pools).

Best time to see snow monkeys in Japan

Winter (December to March) is the best time to see the Japan snow monkeys. The cold weather means that more of the monkeys actually want to come down to bathe, and they will stay in the hot pools for longer. Plus, the park and the ravine are usually covered in snow, making for sublime photography backdrops. Come early in the morning if you can, to beat the crowds. Winter at the Jigokudani Monkey Park does get busy though, so you may prefer to come in the quieter spring or autumn instead when the surrounding foliage is beautiful. Be aware however that if the weather is not cold you’re unlikely to see the monkeys bathing in the hot springs, but instead running around on the rocks.

How to get to the Japanese snow monkey park

To reach the Jigokudani Monkey Park, you walk uphill through the woods from Kanbayashi Onsen, for a distance of just over one kilometre. Allow at least half an hour to reach the visitor centre, and half an hour to get back down. The trail is well-maintained (and dotted with signage explaining macaque behaviours) but it can get muddy during wet weather, which could make it tricky for visitors with accessibility needs. Keep your eyes open because it’s not unusual to encounter the occasional macaque in the trees, and even on the path ahead of you. And Jigokudani Monkey Park is easily reached from Tokyo, which is just 90 minutes from Nagano on the bullet train network.
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Is it ethical to visit the Japan snow monkeys?

Part of me wishes the experience was done at a bit more distance, but the other part of me appreciates how inspiring it can be to see them so close with no physical barrier.
The macaques mostly choose to enter the hot springs during the winter months, but park staff will tempt them in throughout the year by scattering food into the water – effectively, they’re being baited for the benefit of visitors. They come down out of the trees just for a hot bath, but with the promise of a free meal.

Normally we’d consider this kind of thing pretty irresponsible, however prior to the monkey park’s creation, the macaques had a habit of raiding nearby farms for fruit, which led angry farmers to kill them (the age-old story of humans encroaching on the habitat of other species). So at least this keeps them from getting into trouble with the neighbours, though perhaps by now local communities would see the financial value of tourism from people coming to see the macaques, and be a little more tolerant of their criminal leanings.

Another issue at the Japan snow monkey park is that staff will sometimes feel obliged to keep the macaques around the pools, physically preventing them from going back up the mountain, because they don’t want to disappoint visitors who have paid the entrance fee. And during peak time – the winter months – there can easily be more than 100 people there. Despite this, the monkeys remain perfectly placid – they’re quite used to being the stars of the show.

“I’d suggest visiting with caution and keeping an eye out for any irresponsible behaviour from the staff and park,” advises Sam Knight. “Generally my experience was positive although being so close to wild animals always makes me feel a bit odd inside, like I've broken some rule. Part of me wishes the experience was done at a bit more distance and less in the monkeys’ faces, perhaps giving them more privacy to be wild animals… but the other part of me appreciates how inspiring it can be to see them so close with no physical barrier in front of your eyes.”

If you do witness problematic or concerning behaviour at Jigokudani, then email the centre to make your views known directly, and don’t be afraid to make your voice heard on social media and review websites too. Only through responsible travellers calling out inappropriate interactions with wildlife will positive change come about.

What is there to do near Jigokudani Monkey Park?

Jigokudani Monkey Park is an hour’s drive from the city of Nagano, or 15 minutes by road from the Yudanaka onsen town. An onsen town is a small resort where visitors come to soak in thermal hot springs – there are at least 20 of them in the Nagano area.

You can spend a night in a ryokan, a traditional guest house, often family-run and serving delicious home-cooked food – this is a fantastic way to explore Japanese culture, as well as to learn about the complexities of onsen etiquette. “The way to visit would be to stay at a traditional ryokan in Yudanaka or Shibu Onsen,” says James Mundy of our partner InsideJapan. “That allows you to see the monkey early in the day, although it is possible to pay a day visit from nearby Nagano and ski resorts.”
“We spent a week and a bit in the lower part of the valley and really fell in love with the place,” says Sam. “Besides beautiful mountains and lakes there is the historic hot spring town Shibu Onsen just a few minutes down the road from the park, with a walking route from there to the hot springs. There is a quaint tangle of onsen in the town, and you collect stamps for visiting each of the nine bath houses – it’s said to be good luck to collect them all. The back streets are brilliant to explore for an afternoon too. We loved Yudanaka just down the mountain from Shibu Onsen too, where we soaked our feet in the public footbaths, bought boiled eggs on the street that had been cooked in the hot springs that ran through the town, and drank in a range of izakaya (Japanese bars).”

You can catch the cherry blossoms (sakura) around Nagano if you come to see the Japan snow monkeys in April, as this is when they are in full bloom. The best places to admire the cherry blossom in Nagano include the Zenko-ji Temple, and Joyama Park which is a favourite of local people. And from October onwards you can see koyo, which is the autumnal changing of the leaves, an equally beautiful spectacle.

Togakushi Shrine, in the wooded mountains northwest of Nagano, is actually three shrines, dedicated to the Sun Goddess of Japanese mythology. If you’re visiting with the kids, you can encourage them to make the round-trip hiking trail of about eight kilometres with the enticement that close to the middle shrine is a ninja theme park. They can practise scaling walls and escaping labyrinths, while parents can try their hand with throwing stars.

The city of Nagano itself is home to one of the country’s most significant places of worship, the Zenko-ji Temple, which is where the very first statue of Buddha was placed when Buddhism first reached Japan in the sixth century. Due to its age and sanctity, it’s only displayed to the public once every eight years.

The Kaminari Falls is an impressive, 30m-tall curtain of water east of Nagano. Though not among the tallest or most powerful in Japan, what makes it special is that an alcove in the rock has been eroded away, allowing you to walk behind the waterfall, and see (and hear) it thundering down, without getting wet.

Where else can you see Japanese macaques?

The only place you can see snow monkeys in Japan is in Jigokudani Monkey Park near Nagano. But of course, the ‘snow monkeys’ are just regular Japanese macaques that happen to be living in a snowy environment. “There are macaques living all over the mountains of northern Honshu,” says James Mundy, “and it is likely that you will see them elsewhere… just not bathing in hot springs.”

So if you can’t get to Nagano then alternatives include the Osarunoyama Monkey Park near Nikko. If visiting, stop by the ancient Toshogu Shrine in Nikko to admire a wooden relief depicting three wise monkeys assuming the positions of: See No Evil; Hear No Evil; Speak No Evil – the ancient proverb has its roots in Buddhism.

You can also see troops of Japanese macaques living wild at the Awajishima Monkey Centre on Awaji Island; at the Choshikei Monkey Park on Shodoshima (the island of small beans), and at the Iwatayama Monkey Park just outside Kyoto. Keep in mind that the same problem that afflicts Jigokudani Monkey Park – over-popularity meaning staff feel pressured to encourage unnatural behaviour in the monkeys – will likely be an issue in other places too.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [All images ©: Sam Knight]