Snow monkeys are Japanese macaques, a species native to Japan that are best known for chilling out in outdoor natural hot springs against a stark backdrop of snow. The easiest way to see them is at Jigokudani Monkey Park just outside of Nagano, first opened to the public in 1964.
We did a day trip to Jigokudani from Kanazawa, a journey of about three hours each way involving a shinkansen bullet train to Nagano, transfer to a scenic train to Yudanaka and then a short bus ride to the Monkey Park itself. You can also make the trip from Tokyo, also taking about three hours.
It's about a 2.5 kilometre walk from where the bus drops you off to where the snow monkeys hang out around the natural outdoor hot spring. The path is narrow and sometimes steep, with few guard rails against the sheer mountain drop. It's a quiet and calming walk though, with a trail that is rarely crowded. There was a small commotion when we walked past a crowd hovering around a park ranger and realised he'd just bagged a snake that had wandered onto the pathway.
The exertion is soon forgotten when you catch sight of your first macaque. The monkeys seem relatively used to tourists, and are notorious for stealing food and objects that are not keenly supervised.
The chance to observe wild Japanese macaques in their natural environment is quite a surreal experience. Japanese macaques live in social groups marked by female lineage (matrilineal). Males tend to move in and out of groups, often living in isolation or occasionally with small groups of males. The females always stay in their original family group.
The biggest gathering of macaques tends to be around the outdoor onsen, a naturally occurring hot spring. Jigokudani actually translates as Hell Valley, a name given because of the sight of the steam coming off the hot springs against the steep cliffs surrounding it.
The outdoor onsen
And the hot springs is also where you'll find the most tourists, clamouring around with cameras and outstretched phones trying to capture the perfect photo. Guilty as charged.
Watching the younger Japanese macaques on the jungle gym was pretty cool too.
Hot tub time
Japanese macaques grooming in the background
Soaking up the afternoon sun
So what's the latest goss?
Kimmy K did what?!
Jigokudani Monkey Park in winter
This wasn't our first time to Jigokudani Monkey Park. We first visited in February 2010, the photos of which never made it to the blog. Here they are!
Yokoyu River in spring (May) and winter (February)
By coincidence I snapped the exact same shot of the bridge over the Yokoyu River on both trips. The difference in scenery is phenomenal.
That's why they call them snow monkeys!
The temperature was markedly colder in February, about 5C with light snow falling all around us.
The snow makes for dramatic scenery but it also makes the steep walk up the mountain markedly harder too. Slippery ice and piles of snow we had to trudge though meant we worked up a sweat even in the freezing temperatures.
But seeing the monkeys in the snow made it all worth it.
The outdoor onsen is a lot more dramatic too, with visible plumes of steam rising from the hot water.
It was so cold, you almost wanted to jump in with them. Almost.
Watching the snow monkeys groom each other was pretty endearing too.
I'm pretty sure this guy is giving us his best Blue Steel look.
We were sad to leave too.
Hot corn potage in a can from a Japanese vending machine
And random food photos to qualify this as a food blog post? We loved the corn potage you could get in a can, served hot straight from the vending machine. This isn't unusual in Japan. You can often find cans of hot tea, coffee and corn soup, usually marked by a red light or line near the price - the cold cans and bottles are marked in blue.
On a windy train platform at the end of the day, this is exactly the kind of thing you want and need. The soup tasted decent too, thick and rich with plenty of whole sweet corn kernels in the mix.
Chicken croquettes from Iida Shintaro
We also stumbled upon these chicken croquettes from Iida Shintaro within the Midori department store at Nagano JR station. We picked them up on the way to Yudanaka and they were so amazing I bought another on our way back.
Mother and child chicken croquettes
The croquettes have a filling of chicken mince pressed around a soft boiled egg, a bit like a Japanese take on the classic Scotch egg. The Japanese call this combination of chicken and egg "mother and child", simultaneously poetic and poignant.
They were ridiculously delicious though. The noisy crunch of the deep-fried shell coupled with the sweet seasoned chicken mince and then the jackpot of sticky runny egg yolk made for a decadent treat.
Want to see the snow monkeys without leaving your chair? There's a live camera on the onsen that you can track on the Jigokudani website. Unfortunately it looks like it's undergoing repairs at the moment (methinks a cheeky monkey had something to do with it) but you can still browse some of the recent random happy snaps here.
>> Read the next Japan 2015 post: Kyoto Ramen Street and Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
<< Read the first Japan 2015 post: Toyama black ramen and firefly squid
Japan 2015: Toyama > Kanazawa > Nagano > Kyoto > Nara > Osaka > Kobe > Kagoshima > Hakata > Hiroshima and Miyajima Island > Sapporo > Otaru > Hakodate > Tokyo
Jigokudani Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen-Koen)
6845 Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano, Japan
Tel: +81 (026) 933 4379
Open 8am-5pm in summer, 9am-4pm in winter
Iida Shintaro 飯田晋太郎 (Facebook page)
Midori Nagano (next to Nagano JR Station)
1-22-6, Minamichitose, Nagano-shi, Nagano, Japan
Tel: +81 (026) 219 6129
Open daily 10am-8pm
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6/07/2015 01:54:00 am