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. Cosy, warm, thick blankets bury the futon mattresses on the floor. The well-heated ryokan has a rustic feel and the timber floors, tatami mats and framed photos of snow monkeys adorning the walls add to the ambience.
For dinner, we have nabemono a traditional winter speciality, served with an assortment of side dishes such as crispy tempura, zaru soba and dipping sauces. The low tables have a small gas burner at each setting so we do our own cooking. Serving trays piled high with raw, fresh ingredients arrive at our table and we add them to the pot. Bottles of local Japanese beer make a perfect accompaniment to the meal.
The Snow Monkeys
After breakfast, we go to the hot springs. The ryokan is almost covered in a blanket of snow so we carefully make our way down slippery stairs that are barely visible. 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 where 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, with some falling asleep as its so relaxing. They are very social in the warm steamy water and groom and embrace each other with human-like hands.Though they survive temperatures down to -15°C., they look pathetically cold when they get out of the hot spring.
Babies are like soft downy teddy bears in their mother’s arms and their fluffy fur and eyes the colour of warm toffee contrasts against the stark white snow. The monkeys briefly seek eye contact, only to quickly look away. Their deep expressive eyes are mesmerising and it’s no wonder they recognise one another by them.
A mother tickles her baby with a twig and keeps looking at us as if she is making sure we watch them. Impish juveniles play rough and they kick each other with their short stumpy legs, rolling and tumbling in the snow and they roll snow in their tiny hands making snowballs just like us.
There is a strict hierarchy and the young inherit their mothers’ rank. On rare occasions, a very intelligent or aggressive monkey can move up the social ladder and take its family with it.
Only the high ranking snow monkeys go in the hot spring because 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.
The troop is led by an older male with several male helpers who make all the decisions and protect the troop. The males also help in the care of the young and will protect them.
“Togura is the 21-year-old alpha male who took over from his older brother Torayo, who died in 2011 at 28 years old. Togura’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.”
In the late afternoon, we go for a traditional hot tub in the open air. The baths are basic and simple but we enjoy them so much more with the view of the ryokan which is hardly recognisable underneath the powdery snow and the monkeys playing on the roof.
As the sun sets and winter casts a dark shadow across the valley, the monkeys go back to the ice-covered forest and 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.
The Japan Rail Pass covers all of this except the Snow Monkey train because it is privately owned. The cost per person is about 14000 Yen/$350 AUD return if you don’t have a rail pass.
If arriving in Nagano city after 10 pm it’s necessary to get a cab to Yudanaka town (about $100) or stay the night in Nagano.
At first, the Japanese rail can look daunting, but 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 another usually turns up within the hour.
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 stay at Korakukan Jigokudani a traditional Japanese ryokan. Korakukan is special because of the location as its the only accommodation in the national park near the snow monkeys. It is remote and guests have 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 park opens at 9 am during winter. To be the first visitors, start on the walking track no later than 8.30 am. 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.
The trek to the snow monkeys can get very slippery especially when the snow melts and turns to ice so good walking boots are essential.
During winter, it’s very cold and temperatures usually 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 Best Time to Visit
The winter months of December and February are the best times to visit Nagano prefecture, the snow monkeys, skiing and the hot springs.
Generally, the coldest period is mid-January to mid-February and snow is pretty much guaranteed.
If travelling in December, try and plan your snow activities as late in the month as possible because there is more chance of snow the later it is.
When travelling to popular destinations in Asia check the dates of public holidays in China as travelling during these times can be very crowded.