Ever since I saw breathtaking pictures of Japanese Macaques, better known as the snow monkey, chilling in a hot spring, it became my dream to see them in person and take photos of them. As a result, Yamanouchi in Nagano Prefecture, where the Jigokudani Monkey Park is located, became my next stop on my epic journey through Japan.
About the park and the monkeys
Located in the northern part of Nagano prefecture, the Jigokudani Yaenkoen park opened in 1964. Since then, people from around the world have visited the park to observe the unique behavior of Japanese Macaque, enjoying and getting warm in the hot spring. The park’s name – Jigokudani (Hell Valley), originates from the steep cliffs and everpresent steam coming from the hot springs scattered in the snow-covered valley.
The Japanese Macaques that live in the area are native to northern Japan and are the most northern-living non-human primate, surviving winter temperatures of below -15 °C. They survive the harsh winters by grouping around natural hot springs. As most of the springs are not accessible by foot, the Snow Monkey Park with an artificial hot spring is a perfect spot for tourists wanting to observe those fascinating creatures.
We visited the park a month after the typhoon went through Japan and devastated many areas. Unfortunately, one of the wretched places was Snow Monkey Park, where part of the hot spring got damaged and collapsed. Because of it, the monkeys started visiting the spring very irregularly, and the chances of seeing them were pretty slim.
Just before we started the hike, we noticed the info board confirming our biggest fears and informing us about circumstances, and presenting a table depicting when the monkeys were present in the park. Having reached so far and seeing that there is still some chance, we decided to hike up and check the area either way. Worst case, we would turn the photoshoot into a hike 🙂
The 30 minutes hike took us through a beautiful forest, and along the way, we could read more info about the monkeys and their habits. When we reached the ticket office, we were informed there were no monkeys yet, but they might show up. Thinking that we could hike around while waiting, we paid for the tickets and got in.
And then we got disappointed. The hiking path led only to the empty hot spring and ended right there; thus, our hiking idea died even before we started. We hung out next to the spring for the next couple of hours – as they say, hope dies last, and I was determined to see them 😛 But noticing that the goddess of luck was not on our side, we finally gave up, got our tiny consolation notebook from the ticket office, and went back.
Failing to see the monkeys became an immense disappointment for me, and even now, I still periodically check the webcam to see if they are back 😛
The area, the hike, and the perfect sunny day rewarded us with fantastic autumn scenery, making me forget a little how disappointed I was.
Before your visit, check the official website to see whether the park is open and see any official announcements.
How to get there
Take a shinkansen to Nagano station. From Nagano, you can take the Nagaden Express Bus, which will drop you near the monkey park. The bus operates from Bus Stop No.23, outside the station’s East Exit. Read more here.
You can also take the Nagano Dentetsu (Nagaden) train line to Yudanaka Station, from where you’ll need to jump on a local bus for the short ride up to the park.
We opted for the Express bus as the trip only took 45 minutes, was less complicated, and was only 100 ¥ more expensive than 75 minutes train ride. However, if you are in the area, you might want to check out some other locations on the train line.
If you are spending more time in the area, check out Snow Monkey Pass, valid for two days, covering admission to the park, unlimited trains, and busses in the area. Follow this link for more details of what is included and where to buy it.