Before the light from the winter sun softly touches the snow, a troop of Snow Monkeys hold each other while asleep in the dark frozen forest. As the sun slowly rises they descend the mountains to the volcanic hot springs.
Out of breath and hands numb from the cold, we finally see the lights of the ryokan – our secluded traditional accommodation near the snow monkeys. The narrow path on the edge of the mountain is barely visible even with our torches. The ryokan lights tell us we are on the right path after walking in the dark for 30 minutes in ankle deep snow.
Jigokudani Valley, in Nagano Prefecture, Japan is the only place in the world monkeys bath in hot thermal springs. The 850-metre high valley is freezing and snowfall reaches record depths. Here snow covers the ground for one-third of the year.
Our host shows us to our traditional Japanese room; a pot of hot tea waits on the low table called a kotatsu. It has an electric element under the table and is warm and snug to sit with my legs under it wrapped in a blanket. Futon mattresses on the floor are buried with warm, thick blankets. The well-heated ryokan has a rustic feel. The timber floors, tatami mats and framed photos of snow monkeys adorning the walls add to the ambience.
The food is nabemono a traditional winter specialty, served with an assortment of side dishes such as crispy tempura, zaru soba and dipping sauces. The chabudais (low tables) have a small gas burner at each setting and guests at the tables do their own cooking. Serving trays piled high with raw, fresh ingredients arrive at our table and we choose what we want, and add it to the pot. Bottles of local Japanese beer make a perfect accompaniment to our meal.
After breakfast, we go to the hot springs. The ryokan is almost covered in a blanket of snow and we make our way down stairs that are almost buried. The ryokan is the closest accommodation to the monkeys and is only a 100-metre walk across the frozen river. Snowflakes gently fall around us and the forest is covered with a dusting of white icing. Monkey footprints decorate the freshly fallen snow.
With bright red faces, wet fur clinging to their little scalps and their ears sticking out, monkeys unwind in the hot spring. It’s so relaxing, some even fall asleep. They are very social in the warm steamy water. While grooming and embracing each other with human-like hands they are in heaven.Though they survive temperatures down to minus 15 degrees, they look pathetically cold when they get out of the hot spring.
Fluffy fur and eyes the colour of warm toffee contrasts against the stark white snow. Babies are like soft downy teddy bears in their mother’s arms. The monkeys briefly seek eye contact, only to quickly look away. Their deep expressive eyes are mesmerising; it’s no wonder they recognise one another by them.
Only the high ranking snow monkeys go in the hot spring. Monkeys of low rank are not allowed. We feel sorry for the low-class monkeys; their fur sprinkled with snowflakes, snuggle together trying to keep warm on the pipes carrying the warm water from the springs.
Impish juveniles play rough to keep warm. They kick each other with their short stumpy legs, rolling and tumbling in the snow. They roll snow in their tiny hands making tiny snowballs just as we would.
There is a strict hierarchy and the young inherit their mothers’ rank. A mother works hard for the survival of her baby. She nurses the baby for two years until weaned. They are very protective of their young and very proud; it seems like they really want us to look and admire their babies. One mother tickles her baby with a twig and keeps looking at us as if she is making sure we watch them.
The males help in the care of the young and will carry, hug and protect them. The troop is led by an older male with several male helpers. They make all the decisions and protect the troop.
“Togura is the 21-year-old alpha male who took over from his older brother Torayo, who died in 2011 at 28 years old. The leader’s nephew is second in charge,” explains Kayo Miyati, one of the staff from the park. “I love animals and am just happy to work in this environment. I work here but I feel I am healed.”
We head back to the ryokan which is now hardly recognisable underneath the powdery snow. Snow monkeys play on the roof and three huddle under our window. We decide to go for a hot tub ourselves. There is a choice of the inside cedar bathtubs or the outside open air tub. We opt for the outside to enjoy the view and nature. The baths are basic and simple but enjoyed so much more with the view of winter scenery and monkeys.
While in the hot steaming tub, sipping sake; a wine made from the fermentation of rice, inquisitive monkeys come right up to the spa. These endearing monkeys must be one of the most unique primates in the world due to their behaviour and habitat.
As the sun sets and winter casts a dark shadow across the valley, the monkeys silhouetted against the snow covered boulders head back towards the ice-covered forest. They spend the night finding warmth in each other’s arms.
How to get to the Snow Monkeys
Yudanaka town is in the Nagano prefecture and about 10 km and a 20-minute drive to the ski resorts of Shiga Kogen.
- Narita airport – JR express train to Tokyo which takes about an hour.
- Tokyo station – Shinkansen Bullet Train to Nagano city which is about 90 minutes.
- Nagano city – Change to the Nagano Dentecu line to Yudanaka town. This train is also called the Snow Monkey train and takes about an hour.
This is all covered by a Japan Rail Pass except the Snow Monkey train as it’s privately owned. The cost return per person is about 14000 Yen/$350 AUD if you don’t have a rail pass.
At first, the Japanese rail can seem very daunting, but it is straightforward and most destinations and platforms are clearly marked. If in any doubt the staff at the stations are very helpful and most speak English.
The trains are always on time and you only have a couple of minutes to board before it takes off. If you miss one, they are so regular there usually is another within the hour.
If accommodation is booked, usually the host from the hotel or ryokan will pick guests up at Yudanaka station. There is a public bus or taxi available from the station if going directly to the snow monkeys. It is about a 10-minute drive or a 30-minute walk to the start of the snow monkey path from the train station. There is no vehicle access to the snow monkeys and it is an uphill 2 km walk for about 30 minutes.
Entrance Fees into the National Park to see the snow monkeys
Adults 500 Yen/$7 AUD
Children 250 Yen/$3.50 AUD
Snow Monkeys Information
We stayed at KoraKukan Jigokudani a traditional Japanese ryokan. Korakukan is the only remote accommodation in the national park near the snow monkeys. Guests need to walk the 30-minute uphill path with their luggage.
In Yudanaka town, there are also many nice ryokans. Many of the hosts at the ryokans will drop their guests off at the start of the snow monkey path. Senshinkan Matsuya and Bozanso are favourites of many travellers. Yudanaka is a typical Japanese country village that’s full of hot springs and onsens. There is a Post Office with an ATM, convenience store and a couple of Japanese restaurants. Regular shuttle buses (some free) service the area from Yudananka to the Shiga Kogen ski resorts.
The best time to visit Nagano prefecture and the snow monkeys is winter. Between December and February is a good time to go skiing and hot spring hopping. Mid-January to mid-February is the real winter and snow is pretty much guaranteed.
The trek to the snow monkeys can get very slippery especially when the snow melts and turns to ice. Good walking boots are essential.
During winter, it’s very cold and temperatures can drop below zero so warm clothes are essential. While observing the snow monkeys, visitors are standing on ice or snow so warm socks are also necessary.
The park opens at 9 am during winter. To be among the first visitors, start on the walking track, no later than 8.30 am. It can get very packed with tourists, and busloads of visitors arrive throughout the day. Many destinations in the world, once remote and off the beaten path are more accessible than ever before.
When travelling to popular destinations in Asia check the dates of public holidays in China. Travelling during these times can be very crowded.
Though the snow monkeys are perhaps the most over-photographed and overdone primates on the planet it is still a great experience to see them. There is no other encounter with snow monkeys anywhere else in the world.
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