The bathing monkeys of Jigokudani

jigokudani-by-daniel-ongSince 1964, in the city of Yamanouchi, in the northern part of the Nagano Prefecture, a very unusual park can be found.
Situated at an altitude of 850 meters (~2,800 ft), in the Yokoyu River valley, the Jigokudani Yaen-Koen is part of the Joshin’etsu-Kogen National Park, a vast mountainous area with many active and dormant volcanoes.

The name Jigokudani means “Hell Valley”, a name that’s been inspired by the vapours emitted by the thermal activities of these japanese valleys: many mountain villages famous for some of the oldest thermal baths in Japan, like Shibu and Yudanaka, are located in this area, which is also very close to Shiga-Kogen, the main ski area in the country.

JigokudaniWhat makes this park so peculiar is the presence of a large community of Japanese Macaques (Macaca fuscata), more commonly known as Snow Monkeys.
These apes live in large social groups with a solid hierarchical structure, and it’s not uncommon to meet a few of them while still walking the trail that leads to the hot spring water pool where the members of the leading social class use to immerse during the cold season.

In order to preserve their natural habitat no barriers have been built, and this makes finding yourself just a few centimeters from one of the more curious specimens possible. But you’ll have to repress the instinct of interacting with them because the rules of the park forbid any contact with the monkeys, as well as feeding them and disturbing them in any way. And don’t you doubt it: these rules are methodically enforced!

snmky-044-by-koji-ishiiTime flies when observing these small primates holding each other in warm hugs, diving in the water, playing, grooming each other, or just relaxing in the pool. The more sociable ones will probably also strike a pose for the tourists’ and photographers’ sake, but watch over your camera! They might try to steal it and shoot a picture of you instead!

These monkeys are wild animals, and they often hide in the thick surrounding forests. The best period for observing them bathe in the water is from December to March, when a deep snow blanket covers this outstanding landscape giving it a magical atmosphere.
It’s mostly during winter, when the local temperatures can go below -10°C (14°F), that the macaques take advantage of the heat of the hot spring water to protect themselves from cold: they are the only non-human primates capable of living in such a cold environment!

hokkaido-030-by-emy-lamIn order to reach these funny animals, a short walk (about 15 minutes) from the Jigokudani paid parking lot must be taken. This can be reached from Shibu Onsen by the R292, but it’s a very narrow road and wider vehicles can’t enter it. It also gets closed when covered by snow.
Those who enjoy walking can directly cover the whole trail that starts from the free parking lot in Shibu Onsen (unless covered by snow), which takes about 45 to 60 minutes.
Another way is to park the car at the free Kanbayashi Onsen parking lot and walk to the park through the pleasant Yumichi path: it’s open year round, and it’s very easy, being almost completely flat.  About 2km (~1,2mi) long, you will cover it in about 40 minutes of walking through a wonderful natural environment.

A little sacrifice repaid by a unique experience.

Hirao, Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano-ken 381-0401, Japan

Picture credits:
Jigokudani by SteFou! (CC BY 2.0)
Jigokudani by SteFou! (CC BY 2.0)
Yudanaka DSC05523 Japan by Ian Cochrane (CC BY 2.0)
Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park by Sal (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Jigokudani Monkeys 5 by Takashi Toyooka (CC BY-NC 2.0)
snmky-056.jpg by Koji Ishii (CC BY 2.0)
snmky-044.jpg by Koji Ishii (CC BY 2.0)
Jigokudani by Laura Tomàs Avellana (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Jigokudani by Laura Tomàs Avellana (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Jigokudani by Laura Tomàs Avellana (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Hokkaido 030 by Emy Lam (CC BY 2.0)
Jigokudani by Daniel Ong (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


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