Now that we are fully into the winter season here in Japan, I thought that I might take this time tell you more about visiting the snow monkeys in Japan. Monkeys seem to be one of Japan’s most ubiquitous animals (surprising, I know) when you get out into different parts of the Japanese countryside, and there is one very special place to visit them….
Since 1964, an area called Jigokudani Yaenkoen (known as the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park) about 35km northeast of Nagano, Japan has been visited by many people from all over the world, fascinated by a place where they can see Japanese macaques, commonly referred to as “snow monkeys,” up close and personal, taking a bath in the natural hot springs in the area. Located in a mountainous area at 850 meters, Jigokudani Yaenkoen is open every day of the year, but is covered by snow for one-third of the time.
Jigokudani itself actually means “Hell’s Valley” because the steep cliffs and hot water, bubbling up from the earth’s surface, looked a lot like hell on earth. Please do not allow this to deter you from visiting, however, because this place is a kind of heaven for the snow monkeys. You will see the monkeys if you visit, guaranteed, and there are about 200 of them residing in the area at the moment.
Although the park is open all year round, I definitely recommend winter as the best time to visit. Not only is it in keeping with the “snow” theme but the trees lining the road along the walk back to the hot springs are also likely to be covered in snow, adding to the beautiful winter wonderland feel. You are also most likely to get good action shots of monkeys bathing in the hot spring when it’s cold outside and can get yourself a nice hot chocolate to celebrate seeing the snow monkeys at the café across from the parking lot closest to the park entrance.
As I passed a gift shop near the Snow Monkey Park entrance, I even noticed that it is possible to rent a jacket and boots for ¥500 yen each. Other items are also for sale such as gloves (¥500), ear muffs (¥500), socks (¥500), scarf (¥1,000), hat (¥1,000), and non-slip covers for your shoes (¥1,500). The shop also allows you to store any bags in the shop for ¥500 yen. They think of everything in Japan!
Even though it was raining on the day I arrived, I still found the 30-minute walk from the bus station to be so beautiful and peaceful, even with several tourists walking in both directions. I couldn’t help think of the phrase “snow falling on cedars” as I walked along eyeing the tall trees and the silent snow slowly painting them white. The monkeys were also very quiet when I finally reached the one hot spring that tourists are allowed to access (a creek running below is blocked off to tourists), keeping mostly to themselves on that rainy day, fixing each other’s hair, or staring wistfully off into the horizon. The liveliest of the bunch were rolling snowballs back and forth along the ground – no snowball fights, though, much to my disappointment! Along the trail, there are lots of signs written in both Japanese and English that give information about the snow monkey diet, habits, history, etc. This makes it especially interesting to bring children and keeps them entertained along the 30-minute walk. One sign even asks us to reflect on if we are really different from monkeys, something that I’m sure would make for some interesting “first date” conversation along the trail.
In the end, I can’t believe that it took me ten years to see the snow monkeys for the first time. I really enjoyed watching them play and just soak themselves in the hot spring. Even without the monkeys, I think that the area itself is beautiful enough to enjoy for the trees and traditional Japanese inns. Shibu Onsen, a hot spring resort over 1,300 years old, is less than 3km away and a popular ski resort named Shiga Kogen is about 10km away, making it easy to spend a wonderful three-day weekend soaking up lots of Japanese culture far from the hectic Tokyo crowds.
And now for some adorable monkeys!!
The Fast Monkey Facts:
Name: Jigokudani Monkey Park
Open: Every Day of the Year
8:30am-5:00pm (April to October)
9:00am-4:00pm (November to March)
Lockers: available right next to the ticket office or at Yudanaka station, should range from ¥300-500 yen
How To Get There:
Getting to the Jigokudani Yaenkoen to see the snow monkeys is a bit of a trek from Tokyo station, so I would definitely recommend taking a bullet train (also known as a “shinkansen”) from Tokyo Station. These trains leave about once every 30 minutes and take about 1 hr and 40 minutes to reach Nagano station. You should have no trouble getting a seat even in one of the non-reserved cars on the train if you stand in line on the train platform early enough to board. For JR Rail Pass ticket holders, this train ride would be covered by your ticket. For those paying for the ride separately, it currently costs 16,500 for a return trip.
Once you reach Nagano station, you can take either a bus or a train to get there. Of course, renting a car or taking a taxi are also options but can get pricey quickly. I would recommend sticking with a bus or the Nagano Dentetsu train (note: this train is not included as part of the JR Rail Pass). It is also important to make sure that you have lots of cash on you because both the Nagano Dentetsu line from Nagano to Yudanaka station and buses from Yudanaka station to Kanbayashi do not accept credit cards or paid train cards such as Pasmo or Suica that are often used in major cities in Japan. Always bring much more cash than you think you need, as it is also hard to find convenience stores with ATMs once you leave Nagano station.
From Nagano station, there are several options, which are handily available from the Nagano Prefecture Official Tourism Guide (Reprinted from the Nagano Prefecture Official Tourism Guide: http://www.go-nagano.net/blog/?p=3600).
Please be advised that prices are always subject to change. Important: For the Nagano Dentetsu train, please note that some trains will require a train change at Shinshu-Nakano station. Please don’t miss this, as the train will eventually start going back to Nagano from Shinshu-Nakano instead of going on to Yudanaka and you can lose a lot of time in your day.
- Express Bus to Kanbayashi (1300 yen)
NagaDen Bus operates 8+ busses a day during the winter from Nagano Station’s East Exit up to the ski fields at Shiga Kogen. They stop at Kanbayashi Onsen (“Kanbayashi Onsen Guchi” stop) which is in the vicinity of the Kanbayashi trailhead. From there it is a 30 minute, mostly flat ‘promenade’ through a beautiful cedar forest.
- Train to Yudanaka (1,160–1,260yen)
Nagano Dentetsu provides train service to Yudanaka and Shibu, a pair of classic onsen towns. Service is more frequent than the above-mentioned express buses, and you can choose between local trains (1,130 yen, approx. 1 hour 15 min.) and express trains (add’l 100 yen, as fast as 45 minutes).
From Yudanaka Station to the monkey park, you can choose from the following:
A. Local Bus (310 yen)
Roughly matching up with the train arrivals, local buses connect Yudanaka Station to the Kanbayashi trailhead in a quick 7 minutes.
Please pay at the bus ticket window at Yudanaka station or as you are getting off the bus. You don’t have pay when you get on. The bus has announcements in English and Kanbayashi is the last stop on the bus route. If you bought your ticket from the station, hold on to it and put it in the ticket slot next to the driver as you exit at the front.
- “Holiday Shuttle” (800 yen)
Shibu Onsen provides a “Holiday Shuttle” bus from Yudanaka Station directly to the Jigokudani Parking Lot. It is closer to the monkey park entrance than Kanbayashi (15 minutes walk vs. 30 minutes), but is a lot steeper of a walk. Reservations Recommended (tel# 0269-33-3600). The Shuttle runs on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays from December to March, with 6 runs each direction per day.
- Chuo Taxi (from 2,722 yen per person round trip)
Chuo Taxi is offering a new, hassle-free taxi trip to the snow monkey park from Nagano Station. The cost is 17,000 yen for a regular taxi (4~5 people) or 24,500 yen for a jumbo taxi (~9 people) including transportation to Kanbayashi and back, and stand-by time so you can enjoy the monkeys for an hour. Call 026-282-7777 for reservations.