When I was looking up things to do in Japan, visiting the Snow Monkeys in Nagano was at the top of my list. I had seen this picture on the internet (and maybe you have too):
It’s a Japanese macaque monkey soaking in the hot springs and playing with a (presumably stolen) phone. These monkeys inhabit a park called Jidokudani (“Hell’s Valley”, named for the cliffs and the hot steam that rises from the water). When it’s cold, they like to soak in the onsen (hot springs) that were built for them. I mean, come on… I had to check them out for myself!
Dad, Aunty and I were to eat breakfast on the train ride to Nagano. Unfortunately, I woke up that day feeling really sick. I guess I ate too much sushi in the last week… In any case, I really didn’t feel like eating breakfast and ended up not eating anything that morning.
The train ride was from Shinjuku to Nagano, and as we sped out of the city, the landscape slowly turned to snow-covered forests and mountains.
When we got to Nagano station, we stopped to eat lunch at the shopping center there. I still didn’t feel well, so I skipped lunch as well. But Dad and Aunty had soba noodles:
I did have a glass of apple juice, and I’m only mentioning it because Nagano is famous for their apples, and I thought it was interesting that the apple juice was a cloudy pale color, unlike store-brought apple juice from the US.
From there, we took yet another train (the Snow Monkey Express) to the nearby onsen town of Yudanaka. We had booked a room at a ryokan (Japanese-style traditional inn) there, so the innkeeper was nice enough to pick us up at the station, take our luggage, and drive us to the entrance of the park.
Actually, they took us to the base of the path that leads to the entrance of the park. As the sign indicates, to actually get to the admission gate and see the snow monkey onsen, visitors must walk 1.6 km (about 30 minutes) on this trail.
Now, as you’re reading this, maybe you’re wondering how you, too, can see the snow monkeys, and whether or not I had any tips to make sure you get the best experience. My tip for you is to actually eat something that day, before you walk 30 minutes in the snow. As you recall, I had not eaten anything that day because I had a stomachache. It turns out that if you don’t eat, you don’t have energy. Imagine that! At this point I was so weak from hunger that I had to eat the only food we had with us, which was a military-grade cookie that my dad keeps in his backpack.
It was really dense and not that tasty, so I half nibbled and half cried of hunger while I made the climb up the mountain. But of course, I put on a happy face because really was genuinely excited to see the monkeys.
Luckily, my natural beauty overshadowed my state of malnourishment, so I look half decent and somewhat happy in pictures.
The path is mostly level, with a few stretches of steps, so the walk there wasn’t that bad. By the way, I bought that jacket and boots specifically for this trip. It ended up being not entirely necessary because it was a pretty warm day. We were lucky. But, the dirt road was icy, so I do recommend bringing sturdy walking shoes with lots of traction.
When we got to the base of the onsen, I saw my first monkey and I got VERY excited. Just up another flight of stairs, and there was the admission gate/rest area. After paying the entrance fee and taking a short break at the rest area, we headed to the onsen.
Above, you can see the man-made onsen that was constructed for the enjoyment of the monkeys (and all the tourists surrounding it). These are wild monkeys, but they are completely accustomed to (and even bored of) humans, so you can get close and observe them without scaring them away. In fact, they will straight up ignore you and go back to enjoying their bath.
As expected, the monkeys were ridiculously cute- little fuzzballs with surprisingly human-like faces. The youngsters in particular were extremely playful, chasing each other through the snow, sometimes darting under the legs of an oblivious tourist. The larger monkeys preferred to sunbathe on the rocks, scour the snowy rocks for food, or pick at the fur of a neighboring monkey. Each had a personality and seeing the members of the monkey troop interact with each other was a joy to watch.
Let me tell you a little bit more about these monkeys and why they are here. Jigokudani Yaen-koen park was established in 1964, after locals started noticing that the snow monkeys in the area could occasionally be seen enjoying the natural hot spring waters in the winter. They enlarged the onsen and started to feed them as well. Today, there are around 150-200 monkeys in the troop. Although they can be seen in the park all year round, winter is probably the best time, since the cold weather brings more monkeys to the hot springs, and the snowy landscape makes for excellent pictures. The monkeys are wild, but staff feeds them to keep them near the onsen area. I highly recommend this website to learn more about the snow monkeys and this park; it was really useful for me to learn what to expect! Or you can just read this blog post, of course 😉
After taking like 29837453536145424 pictures, I started to feel very faint and decided to sit down on a nearby rock. This turned out to be a great decision, because not only did I not fall over and die of exhaustion, but it also gave me an AMAZING, up-close-and-personal monkey experience as a young monkey ran up behind me and GRABBED ONTO MY BACK.
I actually felt his little body on my back, and I was afraid to turn around because I didn’t want to scare him away. My large and fluffy hood prevented me from being able to look around to see what was going on. So I stayed very still. But on the inside I was like this:
Even though I didn’t really know what was going on, this was an exciting moment for me, and I would probably place it in my Top 5 Best Life Experiences list.
But then this happened, which kind of upstaged me:
NOOOOOOOO! WHY COULDN’T THAT HAVE BEEN ME???? I WANT A MONKEY ON MY HEAD TOO!!!! WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY
So yeah, a monkey climbed on to this guy’s HEAD. As soon as he did that, all the tourists (including me) circled around him and started taking pictures like crazy. Then the guy let the monkey jump off, and everyone APPLAUDED. The guy didn’t even do anything. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if he slathered his head with peanut butter prior to coming to the park.
Just kidding, I’m sure he didn’t do that. By the way, you’re not allowed to feed the monkeys or bring in any food into the park, although I did see a young monkey with a small bar of Green Tea Kit-Kat. He was trying to open the packaging by rubbing it against a rock. It was cute, but also sad because somebody broke the rules and now the Kit-Kat wrapper will become litter.
We had our fill of adorable monkeys and started on the 30 minute walk back down the trail. By the way, I’m not kidding when I say I felt so seriously sick by this point. We stopped by a cafe at the end of the trail for some tea and I ended up throwing up there 😦 But I hadn’t eaten anything so basically I regurgitated a bunch of water. So yeah 😦
Despite me being close to death, I had a really great experience! If you want to visit the snow monkeys too, make sure that you wear comfortable shoes because you will walk through snow and ice (in the winter). Also, if you want to get close to a monkey, try sitting somewhere and waiting for them to come to you 😉 Finally, realize that it does take some time to get here (train and train and possibly bus and then walking…). I think that a day trip is possible but it would be much more relaxing to stay in the area for a night. Which brings me to my next post, which will be about staying at a traditional Japanese ryokan. Stay tuned!