Feb 19, 2018

Visiting Jigokudani Yaen-koen; the one with the bathing "Snow Monkeys"

A visit to see the “snow monkeys” of Jigokudani Yaen-koen bathing in their hot spring bath deep in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture is a unique and magical experience that belays the area’s name of “Hell’s Valley.” But bathing monkeys or not, Jigokudani is a beautiful part of Japan that rewards the effort to get here.

It seems an odd one that the natural habitat of a group of Japanese macaques should include a delightful hot spring for them to soak in, as well as a regular feed from professional human hand, but this is the case at Jigokudani Yaen-koen, aka Jigokudani Monkey Park Nagano.

Journey’s to see the famed monkeys at Jigokudani Yaen-koen (地獄谷野猿公苑) will, for many, start at Nagano station, boarding the Nagano Dentetsu Line “Snow Monkey” train. For the first timer, there can be little doubt about being on the correct train -- almost all fellow passengers have monkeys on the mind, and English-language signage abounds offering assurances that this is, indeed, the train to get them there.

The express service, despite the name (and the fever of getting on board), ambles its way northeast through the low slung suburbs of Nagano City before taking a gentle incline through sweeping farmland to the higher altitudes of Yamanouchi, “snow monkey town,” and the end of the line at the onsen resort of Yudanaka.

Laid-back Yudanaka sits at the fork of the Kamakura and Yokoyu rivers. The town’s reformed train station building engages in a face off with the former station building immediately across the tracks, the latter now home to a public onsen and an outdoor footbath. A gentle walk up the valley, neighboring Shibu Onsen is a real treat where narrow streets, under the rich glow of street lamps at night, resemble a Ghibli fantasy.  

From the station at Yudanaka most monkey viewers will take a short bus ride to Kanbayashi Onsen to follow a 30-min trail along the southern banks of the Yokoyu River into Jigokudani Yaen-koen.

An alternative, and quieter approach during the winter months, is via Shibu Onsen and a minibus service to a trailhead north of the Yokoyu. Access is by a narrow, winding pass, that digs into the forested mountain side. The pass is covered in snow during winter and closed to regular traffic. Perfectly understandable. Conditions are slippery with little room for error. Mini buses depart in pairs the way mountaineers rope together should one of them get in trouble. At least there are plenty of trees to break a fall!

Jigokudani translates to “Hell’s Valley.” Park management tells us this is what ancient people called the area due to the mountain slopes looming ominously and spitting out steam. There are other “Hell’s Valleys” in Japan though (think Noboribetsu in Hokkaido, for example). Still, marketing savvy or not, this a beautiful part of the world.  

In fact, at the trailhead north of the river, Jigokudani is more Shangri La than an afterlife address for those who’ve been naughty. Coated in a light dusting of snow during winter, the steep and forested valley slopes appear almost ethereal and a far cry from something to induce fear.  

This side of the river the trail to Jigokudani Yaen-koen is short -- it’s only around 15 mins to the park entrance -- but this is OK, it’s quiet (the only people on it are those who could fit into two minibuses) and the scenery so painfully beautiful that a short burst is probably all that the mind can comprehend.  

The initial section of the trail is broad with banks of rocks crumbling into the gurgling river. It’s not long before the narrowing valley forces us up onto the mountainside and into the trees via a short but stiff set of winding steps that level off onto a gentle, narrow trail, breaking through the tree line as it nears Jigokudani Onsen.  

On the approach to the onsen there’s opportunity for a great photo of the Yokoyu pouring under a footbridge and gushing over the falls into a brilliant blue pool below.  

Jigokudani Onsen centers on Korakukan (後楽館) a rustic and impossibly romantic ryokan perched on a rocky bluff above the river. This is the closest accommodation option to the monkeys and the outdoor baths here have views over the Yokuyu to the thick belch of steam coming out of Jigokudani spring.  

Board game enthusiasts might get a kick out of the ryokan’s history with new-wave pioneers of the Japanese strategy game “Go.” Celebrated masters Kitani Minoru and Go Seigen stayed here as they studied new approaches to the game in the early 1930s. It’s certainly a place with few distractions.

One or two of the snow monkeys might venture down to Jigokudani Onsen, perhaps to bask in the attention of visitors who fear this might be their best chance for a photo. It isn’t, and there are plenty more monkeys to be seen beyond the entrance to the park.

It’s at Jigokudani Onsen that trails north and south of the river meet, on the southern side, leading to a stiff climb up some well-cut stone steps to the entrance of the park. The small visitors center at has toilets, gift shop, English-language information about the macaques, and warmth in winter.

This far up the valley, and out of the tree line, perhaps Jigokudani might have appeared, after all, as a kind of hell to those who weren’t afforded a warm visitors center and stable walkways over the rocky terrain. This is a spartan plot of land, cowering from the sun, all crumbling rocks, cold stone, and aggressive water.  

For modern visitors though, focus is drawn to the splendid hot spring bath occupying an enviable position overlooking the river with views down the valley. If this bath was for human use, the owners could charge a fortune and still have people queueing for a soak.  

The “snow monkeys” come down from the mountain slopes for a dip largely during the winter months when frigid temperatures lend themselves to a good hot soak. (Temperatures can drop to minus 10 degrees Celsius in these parts.) Either that or they are perched on the baths edge to take the occasional sip instead.

It was back in 1970 that an image of the bathing monkeys at Jigokudani made the front cover of an issue of TIME magazine thus putting them on the world stage. Wild animal indulging in the kind of civilized pursuit typically only afforded to humans with time and cash to spare does, without doubt, make for a fantastic photo opportunity. What you don’t often see from all the glossy images is the bank of amateaur snappers, kitted out to tackle Mt. Everest, craning for the perfect shot.

There are two points around the hot spring bath that make for the best photos -- one from down some steps where the bath is almost at eye level, the other with the bath at foot level facing the river and the other side of the narrow valley.

When not taking a bath, most of Jigokudani’s macaques congregate by the side of the river, lounging, playing and scrapping among the rocks. At the time of visiting, this seemed to be where most of the little ones were finding their feet under the supervision of mom. It was around 4 pm that a member of park staff began throwing out some feed a few meters up the steep slope from the hot spring bath. This was enough to stir most of the monkeys out of whatever it was they were doing to scramble across the rocks and get their share.

Feeding the monkeys is for professionals only -- signs around the park warn visitors not to give any sneaky handouts. Despite being wild animals though, and Jigokudani not being the easiest of places to get to, the monkeys appear very comfortable, almost nonchalant, in the presence of camera welding humans. With a bit of luck, one of the them will even stare straight down your lense.  

From a 1970 front cover of a major magazine to the present day which has seen a live webcam set up by the bath, Jigokudani’s snow monkeys appear not to be saddled with the inhibitions that make it uncomfortable for many people (well, those who aren’t Japanese) to get in a bath with strangers present. Not that seeing these monkeys taking a dip is a sure thing. At the time of visiting we managed to catch two or three mid soak. Others walked around bath’s edge, took a few sips of water, and moved on. Just as they appear unperturbed by human presence, so the monkeys seem oblivious to the human collective willing them to get in that bath.

Given that most visitors to Jigokudani Yaen-koen are here for but one thing -- bathing monkeys -- disappointment at not seeing this is understandable, especially given the effort required to get here. But as park literature tells us, “bathing is only a small portion of their life.” During the winter months (November to March) the visitor will likely get what they came for. But bathing monkeys or not, this a beautiful, rugged part of the world in which a thoroughly relaxed macaque is equally only a small portion of the rewards for getting here.

Notes on the Jigokudani Monkey Park experience

Getting here

From late December to late March “Snow Monkey Holiday Minibuses” depart two at a time from stops in Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen.

Seats must be reserved (either by telephone or at the bus departure points). Return tickets include entrance to the park - 1,700 yen.

There are 6 departures on days when the service is running between 9:10 and 16:05 from Yudanaka.  

For telephone booking / inquiries: 0269-33-2921 (Shibu Onsen Hotels Association)

Buses from Yudanaka station to Kanbayashi Onsen take 15 mins (310 yen).

At Yudanaka station plenty of English-language information is available on how to get to the park. English-speaking volunteers were also on hand to offer help at the time of visiting.

If getting to / from Yudanaka on the “Snow Monkey” train from Nagano, be at the platform / ticket gates at least 20 mins ahead of time to guarantee a seat on the train.

Express trains take around 45 mins. Local trains require a change at Shinshu-nakano, taking around 1 hour - 1 hour 20 mins.

Hiking to the park

If taking the Snow Monkey Holiday Minibus, wellington boots are available to borrow free of charge.

While the hiking trails into Jigokudani Monkey Park are easy going for most, during winter or after a period of rain things can get pretty sludgy and slippery so it pays to be wearing sturdy shoes with a good grip and clothes that you are prepared to get muddy.

Particularly in winter, come well prepared for the cold weather and snow.

Toilets are available at trailheads and the park’s entrance. There are one or two drinks vending machines dotted around the area.

Park entrance

Safety information and advice on how to behave around the monkeys is clearly displayed around the park entrance.

Admission Fee: 800 yen (adult) / 400 yen (child)

Hours: April - October ~ 8:30 - ^ 17:00 / November - March ~ 9:00 - ~ 16:00 (hours are not fixed and are subject to change, opening hours for that particular day are displayed on the park’s homepage)

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