Sick of Japan’s busy cities? Go visit the Snow Monkeys in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture. On top of witnessing an amazing natural ecosystem, experience traditional Japanese inns (ryokan) and their hot springs (onsen).
Japan is not known for its wildlife. True, there are relatively few animals to be seen in Japan and most travelers tend to stick in the cities with the JR Pass so there are few opportunities to encounter wild animals anyways. This does not mean that the little fauna to see is not amazing; enter the snow monkeys.
The Japanese Macaque, better known as the snow monkey, is a native species of living in the mountains of the Nagano prefecture. These monkeys are regularly featured in nature magazines and documentaries as they are incredibly photogenic in their snowy environment. They survive the tough winters (sub-zero temperatures) by grouping around natural hot springs, which are not easily accessed by foot. This is why in the Snow Monkey Park of Jigokudani, there is a man made hot spring where a large population of monkeys come to bathe. Here is all the info you need for a magical two day trip to meet the Snow Monkeys.
- Train : The total price for a round trip from Tokyo is around 18000¥ with a shinkansen to Nagano then a local train to Yudanaka
- JR Pass : Free to Nagano but 1230¥ one-way ticket to Yudanaka
Yudanaka is a small mountain village with many ryokan (japanese-style hot spring hotels) varying in prices from 4000¥ – 10000¥ per person per night. These are very fun to stay in. Most include a yukata (traditional japanese light kimono) you can wear, free hot springs (separated by gender, full nudity is required). The food is amazing and served in the room which is entirely tatami (japanese mats) upon which you have a futon to sleep. In most cases shuttle services to and from the monkey park are included, inquire with the hotel though.
The Park :
Be sure to get there early (9:00 AM), especially in the snowy season as later in the day there are hundreds of camera-clad tourists and Japanese rushing in to shoot the most amazing wildlife photos. Provided the hotel shuttles you to the entrance of the park, you will be dropped off at the bottom of the trek to the hot spring. This is a pleasant 45-minute walk in the beautiful mountain scenery.
Upon arriving at the entrance to the hot spring, you must pay a 500¥ ticket. You then proceed to see the monkeys. The photos speak for themselves it is an amazing viewing experience. The resemblance between the monkeys and humans is uncanny, making the entire experience all the funnier. While you may not touch the monkeys, they are used to human presence and are not scared to come close to you and your camera giving you the freedom of taking close-up photos to your hearts content.
For me, this was one of the highlights of my trip to Japan and I would definitely go again. More than the overall beauty of the natural park and the animals themselves, seeing monkeys bathe and play in hot springs just made me happy and amazed. I strongly recommend the amazing experience that is visiting the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
I understand that this trip may be out of some people’s budgets, but it is a unique experience and lets face it, Japan is expensive anyways. To curb the expenses I suggest going to Nagano with many people and renting a car, this is how I got to see the monkeys and the trip cost me a total of 15000¥ (we were 8 people in a car). Another way is just to use the JR Pass but it is a 2-day trip using Tokyo as a base.