When I was growing up, I had an obsession with monkeys. I collected monkey stuffed animals and decorated by bedroom with them. I had them all over my bed, and even hanging down from the ceiling. On my wall, next to an adorable Ann Geddes photo of a baby dressed up to look like a flower, was a giant poster of a Japanese Macaque, otherwise known as a Snow Monkey. The monkey looks mischievous, holding a snowball in its hands.
I later learned how unique the Japanese Macaque really is-they are the only primates that live in such extreme cold conditions. Whereas most monkeys and other primates prefer the tropical, southern climate, these monkeys have adapted to the cold, northern climate. They’re found all over Honshu island, but the most popular viewing site is Jidokudani, located in Yamanouchi. One of the main appeals of visiting the snow monkeys here is that you can watch them enjoying a very traditional Japanese past time- bathing in the hot springs.
Visiting these adorable creatures was top on my list of experiences for my time in Japan. Unfortunately, I was visiting Japan in the Fall. There wasn’t going to be a snowflake in site. Would the monkeys still be around?
Jidokudani Snow Monkey Park
Getting into the park is a great part of the experience- it’s a gentle 30 minute hike along a quiet mountainside. As soon as I entered into the park, it’s was absolute monkey mania. The monkeys were going ape (sorry, couldn’t resist) over one of the caretakers who was feeding them seeds. Little squabbles broke out between several of them fighting for seeds. There were monkeys absolutely everywhere and as they heard the caretaker, more ran down from the mountainside.
After the excitement of feeding time was over, things settled down a bit. They broke off into small groups to play, groom, or simply watch the tourists take pictures of them. One small group, consisting of several adults and 3 children settled into the hot spring for a post-meal soak (or, they wanted to pick up the seeds that the caretaker had thrown in the water). At first, the parent jumped right into the water hoping her (I think it was a female) 2 kids would follow. They babies were reluctant and had to be persuaded to get into the water- they slowly climbed onto their mother’s back and held onto her as she waded around the man-made hot spring pool.
As we wandered around the part of the park near the springs, I couldn’t help but get a bit spooked by just how many monkeys were around me. While most were friendly from a distance, one particular big guy didn’t appreciate that I wanted to take a photo of him and began showing teeth and hissing at me. I got the hint and turned around to run away, which must have scared him. He lashed out at me, and though he didn’t actually fully charge at me, he got quite worked up. Luckily, I had maintained my distance the entire time and he was far enough away to not hurt me. Again, one of the caretakers came over, and yelled at the monkey which subdued him for long enough for me to cross the bridge over the river and get away.
After about an hour of monkey viewing, we had had enough and decided to wander our way back into town. If you have time and the weather is nice, I highly suggest walking back and taking in some of the quaint shops and restaurants along the way. The gift shop at the entrance to the park (right before the hike) sold a good variety of monkey themed gifts and some local snacks. Another two minutes down the road is the charming Enza Café, which makes a delightful stop for lunch or snacks. Though limited for vegetarians, the bruschetta, which may seem out of place at a ramen restaurant, was delicious.
We simply followed the river back through Shibu Onsen and then to Yudanaka. Along the way we stopped at the local temple, a sake brewery, and a beer brewery where they staff spoke English and had several options on tap.
Want to see the Snow Monkeys?
Where to stay-
Accommodations in this part of Nagano Prefecture can be pricey and they book up quickly. Even during the off-season, most hotels and ryokans were booked several weeks in advance. I had looked into spending the night in the famous onsen town of Shibu, but the prices for the remaining rooms were astronomical.
After a little searching, and a last-minute cancellation, I was able to book a room at the Shimaya Ryokan which is located past the town of Shibu, but still within walking distance to both Shibu and the Monkey Park. The hotel was a perfect choice- reasonably priced, excellent service and had access to a private onsen. Don’t expect anything modern though. I felt like I had time traveled back to the 1970s when I walk through the doors, but with such incredibly hospitality and a surprisingly comfortable futon I didn’t mind one bit.
The owners were so kind to drive me to the Monkey Park in the morning, where I was able to spend the better part of the morning and then, rather than call them for a ride back, I simply walked back, stopping at the local brewery for a pick me up, and later getting a steaming bowl of ramen in Shibu. It was the perfect day.
If you spend the night in the area I recommend booking a place with access to an onsen. The nightlight is limited and after walking all day a soak will feel nice.
How to get there-
The nearest major train station is Nagano. From there, you can take a 45 minute train ride to Yudanaka Station on the Nagano Dentetsu line. The hotel is very close, but they will pick you up if needed.
To get to the Monkey Park, you can take a bus from the Yudanaka station to Kanbayashi Onsen, which lets you off at the start of the hike to the entrance.
The entrance fee is 500 Yen.
When to go-
After visiting in September, I can say that this is a great destination year round. The advantage of visiting outside of the winter months is that you can enjoy the hike to the park and even make a day of wandering back to your accommodation before enjoying an evening soak in the onsen. Just make sure to pack warm clothes- it gets really cold at night.