Located about 45 minutes outside Nagano, in central Japan, the snow monkeys live in an area called Snow Monkey Park, but it’s not really a park. You have to pay a park fee to get close to them, but there aren’t any cages or anything unnatural here – unless you count the old, perpetually-under-construction Ryokan and hot springs once intended for humans but now playing host to the monkeys. More than 200 snow monkeys live here, and you’ll see everything from young babies to adult male monkeys fighting for territory.
I first heard about these monkeys back in the 90’s, when the Winter Olympics were held in nearby Nagano. I remember seeing on the news, before the competition started, footage of monkeys relaxing in hot springs while snow fell around them. Lo and behold, 15 years later, I’d be in that same spot, watching (maybe!) the very same monkeys do the same thing.
The Japanese Alps, as they call them, are covered in hot springs, and the monkeys – like people – have realized that sitting in a warm spring is a great way to beat the winter chill. When we were there, it was quite cold and snowing somewhat significantly, so it’s no wonder these monkeys were huddling, running around, and hopping from rock to rock in the springs to stay warm.
In the park is what appears to have been a former human destination: a traditional Japanese ryokan. Though I can’t imagine what could be more fun that sitting in a hot spring yourself with the monkeys (legit!) the place appeared to be closed and now has only monkeys – not people – running around. It looks as though it’s been closed a while, but I’d like to be wrong on that, as it seems like an amazing destination. It did offer a sage piece of advice though. Don’t leave those doors open, folks.
While in the monkey park, you’re in THEIR habitat – which means they’ll be walking throughout the crowd and won’t be too afraid of the tourists. While we were there, a little baby monkey literally walked in between us by putting one little monkey hand on each of our legs – a truly awesome experience.
Although the monkeys may interact with you, you should NOT ever engage them. It could scare them, hurt them, or make them defensive around people.
Now, if you’re thinking this sounds awesome (and it is,) make sure you read the following part. From Nagano, at the Nagano central bus terminal, you’ll have to catch a bus to Snow Monkey Park, Yamanouchi, Shimotakai District (also called Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.) The bus ride is about 45 minutes and will fill up on big tourist days, so get there early. The bus will drop you more or less on the side of the road, and then it’s a good 30- 50 minute walk on a thing trail through the woods to get to the monkey park. For us, it was snow covered, cold, and muddy, so dress accordingly and don’t plan for many amenities.