I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated with any type of animal, especially monkeys! So, anytime that I have a chance to see them in the wild, I take it. On our last road trip through Japan, we rented a car and drove over a good portion of the island of Honshu taking in some quirky sights, eating kobe beef, and even making Cup O’ Noodle noodles. It certainly wasn’t out of the question to visit the bathing snow monkeys and we added to the itinerary. Seriously, snow monkeys in hot tubs! That’s a sight everyone needs to see.
Where Are the Snow Monkeys in Japan?
The best place to see snow monkeys in hot springs is at the Jugokudani Snow Monkey Park, but it’s not the only place to find monkeys.
Some other places that you can see the Japanese snow monkeys are:
- Ueno Zoo, Tokyo
- Mt. Takao Monkey Park, 50 minutes from Tokyo
- Iwatayama Monkey Park, Kyoto
- Awaji Island Monkey Center, 40 minutes from Kobe
- Mt. Takasaki, Oita City
When we lived in northern Japan, in the Aomori district, we would take road trips all around the region. One of our favorite routes took us up along Mutsu Bay and around the Shimokita peninsula. We’d search for glass floats on the beaches, enjoy fresh scallops in Mutsu city, and seek out the elusive wild ponies near Shiriyazaki lighthouse. One of our regular camping spots, however, was by the small fishing village of Wakanosawa, This is a tiny, very traditional town with a little fishing boat harbor, a smaller noodle restaurant, and a few seaside shrines and temples. But more importantly, there were snow monkeys.
These fascinating creatures could be seen climbing on the temple roof, sneaking into rice fields, or bothering the fishermen’s nets. The only problem was, this area was unreachable in the middle of winter so we never saw these “snow” monkeys in the snow. We had heard of a place near Nagano where the monkeys frolicked in the white stuff and lounged around in hot springs in their own wildlife preserve. Here the monkeys were protected and have grown quite used to being around humans. So we began planning our primate adventure to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
Snow Monkeys in Hot Springs
Jim and I have been to see the snow monkeys in Jigokudani a few times. The first time was a few years ago, and we stayed the entire weekend since there is a traditional Japanese ryokan within feet of the park entrance. Ryokans are one of those things that everyone visiting Japan should do once. It’s on the pricier side of accommodations, but even if you are a budget traveler it’s worth the splurge. Spending the night and eating dinner in a traditional Japanese inn really provides insight into the culture.
The great thing about staying at the Korakukan is the proximity to the monkeys. Since the monkeys live right there, some even sleep on the walls and roof of the ryokan. When we were there, we heard them all night, and we looked out of our frosty window at them and when my friend and I went into the ryokan’s onsen (hot tub) one jumped in next to us. It was thrilling to be sharing the bath with a wild monkey, but we didn’t stay in long after that.
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Hot Tub Monkeys
Jigokudani is not a zoo. The monkeys live in the valley in one large group, about 140 of them. Since you must walk into the park, you will often see them on or near the path. Once you are inside the park, it’s a short walk across a bridge to see the hot tub.
It’s pretty amazing to see the monkeys with their eyes half closed, relaxing in the spa. Some will jump in and out, especially the younger ones, and some will be grooming, but mostly they are just keeping warm and half asleep if they are in the water.There is usually no more than maybe six in the water at one time, and of course the older or more important monkeys have first choice.
There are plenty of monkeys just hanging around on the brush, the rocks, and right in the middle of all the people loaded down with their cameras. They will even run through your legs if your aren’t careful. It is really entertaining to watch them chase and play.
A Day At Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
Somehow, the snow monkeys of Japan have claimed global stardom. True, there have been some fascinating National Geographic and BBC features documenting the life and times of these beautiful golden creatures. You can find snow monkeys, if you’re very lucky, in the remoter regions of Japan.
We’ve been fortunate enough to spot them from the roadside a few times as they nimbly climbed through bamboo forests or along telephone wires. The typical tourist to Japan, however, just doesn’t have the time to count on these random encounters. Therefore, planning a trip to the snow monkey park is a must.
From the moment you walk onto the trail, you will love it. The trail is relatively easy, with a few steps, inclines, and plenty of beautiful cedar trees lining it. The cedar trees is the preferred habitat of the Japanese macaque, and we’ve seen a troop of monkeys heading to the park for their evening feeding. To see them carrying their young, swinging through the trees, stopping to take a look at us was such a bonus. I did not realize that that the monkeys still traveled day and night throughout the area.
Once you get to the river, you will see the entrance booth where you buy your ticket. Then you must descend about 40 concrete stairs, cross the riverbed, and you will come upon the natural hot spring. It has been fortified with rocks and cement, but it’s still a hot spring. The monkeys come here to soak their bodies and get warm. It does look inviting, but this pool is for monkeys only.
Jigokudani Park Information
- The park is open all year long, 365 days from at least 9:00 – 4:00 and longer in summer.
- From the entrance, you must walk about one kilometer
- Cost of entry is 800 Yen.
- There is a small shop with souvenirs and drinks for sale.
When is the Best Time to See the Snow Monkeys?
The word “snow” says it all. Go in winter! December through March are the optimum months for seeing the snow monkeys in the hot springs. They do it mainly to warm up, so it’s not as important in the warmer months.
Twice I’ve been in the snow, which I think makes the visit that much more memorable. Luckily, I had time to get photos with snow coming down, then fresh snow as well. The area around the hot tub gets pretty muddy, and the trails can get slippery, so it’s important to wear the right kind of clothes. Boots are a must, and so is a winter jacket that will keep you dry, because the snow is very wet.
Sleeping With or Near Monkeys in Onsen
On our very first trip to see the Japanese snow monkeys, we stayed at the traditional ryokan, called Korokukan, right there in the park, changing into yuukata and wooden sandals and enjoying the relaxing hot springs as soon as we arrived. We spent a very comfortable night on futon rolled out in a second story bedroom where the snow monkeys huddled together to spend the night outside on our windowsill. The ryokan has both indoor and outdoor onsen and we were amazed when some cheeky little monkeys climbed right on in with us as we soaked in the hot water, snow falling gently around us. This was a magical trip.
You definitely do not have to spend the night right there with the monkeys, though, you can easily visit them in one day, in fact in just a few hours. After a short walk into the park, you pay your fee, and there is one pool where the monkeys congregate, partly because that’s where the hot tub is, and partly because the park rangers feed them there. There’s not much else to do but watch them and take photos, so a couple of hours is really plenty of time.
However, if you just want to go during the day we suggest you plan to stay one night in either Nagano or Yamanouchi. There are plenty of hotels in Nagano in a wide range of comfort and price. It’s a good idea to stay closer to the park, so consider staying in Yamanouchi. Here you’ll be nearer the mountains and will find several traditional hotels, like Ryokan Hakura, with natural spring baths to chose from.
Getting To Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
By train from Tokyo: Unfortunately it is not that easy from Tokyo, and pretty expensive (at least the equivalent of $100) but if you buy the Japanese Rail Pass it will be much cheaper for you and it’s in a very central location.
- Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo main station to Nagano.
- From Nagano take the local train Nagano-sen to Yudanaka Station.
- Take the bus for the Kanbayashi trail. This is the route we took the first time we went and it’s pretty straightforward. The bus driver knows that you are going to see snow monkeys and will help you. Don’t worry.
By bus: There is a ski bus that runs during the winter months called the Express Bus to Kanbayashi. It leaves from the Nagano Station (East exit) numerous times per day and the end point is the skiing resort of Shiga Kogen, but it will stop at the Kanbayashi Trail as well.
Or there is a Holiday Shuttle Bus that runs from the Yudanaka station and will drop you off at the entrance to the monkey park – Jigokudani Parking Lot. It only runs on weekends and Japanese holidays from December through March, and try to make reservations.
By Car: We drove this past time, because we were traveling with five people and it was much cheaper than taking the train. Driving in Japan is pretty easy, but they do drive on the left. At least all signage has both Japanese and Western writing, so you can easily follow them.
Take the Joshinentsu Expressway (toll road) and at the Shinshu- Nagano interchange take route 292 to Shiga Kogen. You must park and walk in. We had to park down the road quite a bit and we arrived at 9:00, so either spend the night somewhere near or get a very early start.
Japanese Snow Monkey and Judokudani Park Tips:
- There is a lot of walking. Sturdy shoes should be worn during all seasons. Winter is cold, so layer up and wear heavy socks, gloves, etc. If you bring children, either make sure they are good at walking or wear them in a backpack. It’s really not stroller friendly.
- The monkeys in the park are wild. They are used to humans, but they will protect their young.
- Don’t look the monkeys in the eyes. This can be taken for aggression and be very dangerous.
- Don’t feed the monkeys. The park rangers will spread feed, but the monkeys are used to them. Keep all your snacks safely secured in your pack.
- There is really nowhere to eat at the park, other than a small sales on drinks and snacks. Plan to eat lunch in Yudanaka. It’s a great little city with some cute restaurants and even better hot springs. It’s a great way to warm up on a cold day.
Things to Do Near Jugokudani Snow Monkey Park
- Yudanaka Onsens – 15 minutes
- Nagano City – 1 hour
- Matusmoto and Its Castle – 1.5 hours
- Nozawaonsen – 1 hour