In a quiet valley south of Nagano City lies one of the world's unique attractions. Snow Monkey Park is home to bands of Japanese macaques who come down from the mountains to warm up in the hot springs. They love a good soak as much as humans, and the park gives visitors a chance to see the usually elusive creatures up close.
The monkeys live way out in the mountains, and getting there takes some time.
The good news is that buses run to Kanbayashi Onsen near the trail leading into the park from many popular destinations around the prefecture, including Nagano (40 minutes), Nozawa Onsen (30 minutes), Shiga Kogen (30 minutes), and Yudanaka and Shiba Onsens (10 minutes).
From Kanbayashi Onsen it's a 25 to 40-minute walk on a trail through the forest to the Snow Monkey Park. The trail is passable all year round.
*Japanese macaques, more commonly called snow monkeys, have the northernmost range of the world's non-human primates
-*The park is also known as the Jigokudani Monkey Park, or the Jigokudani Yaen Koen
In the Shiga Kogen foothills along the Yokuyu River lies Jigokudani, or Hell's Valley. It's under deep snow for a third of the year and its rugged surroundings and geothermal activity conjure up a similarity with Hades. The surrounding forests and mountains are home to multiple families of monkeys, numbering in the hundreds.
The Korakukan Ryokan hot spring inn has operated in the valley since the mid-1800s. Over the years, troops of monkeys would come down and occasionally be fed by the guests lounging in the outdoor bath. The monkeys caught onto this system quickly, and before long they were getting a bit too cozy. No one knows the first time one of the monkeys took the plunge, but soon word got around the monkey community that these humans in the hot pools were onto something.
The Snow Monkey Park was established in 1964 to give the heat seeking creatures their own slice of onsen heaven while giving the humans at the inn some space. All this while providing others with the chance to learn about primate behavior.
The park also aimed to keep the monkeys in the area and away from their other great love, pillaging the neighboring farmland. Staff at the park have fed the monkeys daily ever since its opening. They live in the surrounding mountains, but come down for the free meals.
The monkeys visit the baths year-round, but tend to spend a lot of time in them during the colder seasons. As such, December to March is usually the best time to visit.
To reach the Snow Monkey Park, you walk a two-kilometer path from Kanbayashi Onsen through a quiet forest. During winter the trail is particularly beautiful. You might enjoy the walk as much as meeting the monkeys. Signage along the path through the forest to the baths tells visitors about macaque social hierarchy, behavior and child rearing.
You'll start encountering the monkeys as you get near the bath. Generally, the closer you get, the more crowded it is. These laid back tree swingers have their own lives, and bathe as they please. They're also thoroughly used to humans being around, so you'll be able to get photos, but will usually be completely ignored.
Don't feed them, poke them, pet them, tease them, or toss snow balls at them. Don't bare your teeth at them (especially the big males), and whatever you do, don't join them in the water.
Once you've finished monkeying around, head to nearby Yudanaka or Shibu Onsen for a soak yourself. Or better yet, spend the night at one of the local inns for a monkey-free onsen experience.
For those planning some winter sports after a day with the macaques, Shiga Kogen and Nozawa Onsen are both a half-hour bus ride away.