The Year of the Snow Monkey: Jigokudani Monkey Park
In English, the phrase 'bucket list' is definitely one that is over-used. In Japan, however, the phrase that describes the things you want to do before you die, has ironically enough, got a new lease of life. 絶景 or 'Zekkei', was designated as one of Japan's 'buzzwords of 2014', inspired a best-selling book on Amazon and is now a popular Facebook group. The phrase roughly translates as 'magnificent places to visit' but it has the same effect as our own 'bucket list'. Before coming to Japan, the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park was a 絶景 for me, thanks to the excellent 'Earth's Enchanted Islands' documentary series shown on BBC last year.
Located within the larger Joshin'etsu National Park, inside of Nagano Prefecture, Jigokudani Yaen-koen is seen by many as one of the must-see locations of Japan itself. 'Hell's Valley Wild Monkey Park' as it is translated, is so called because of the steep cliffs and hot water springs that erupt in the area. At 850m and situated along the Yokoyu River which moves water at speeds of up to four tonnes per second, Jigokudani is not the most hospitable of landscapes. Yet as many official pamphlets will tell you, it may be known as 'Hell's Valley', but it's 'paradise' for the monkeys that live there...
Found only on these islands, the Japanese macaque has something of an exalted position in the nation's consciousness. It is believed to be the world's most northern living primate and has long been a common feature on these isles, particularly in this area of Nagano where it snows for almost a third of the year. When the park opened in 1964, it was originally to be a ski resort and onsen area for tourists; but the macaques had other ideas. The sudden rise in human population in the area pushed the macaques downstream, and right into the path of local farmers who were quick to deem them pests; stealing fruit and destroying crops. So it was decided that they would return to Jigokudani and have their own separate park. This turned out to be a little more difficult than it sounds, taking five years of regular feeding before the whole troop returned. Sometime during this period, one young macaque is said to have dipped his toe in the warm waters of the hot spring, causing others to follow suit. In 1970, they were featured on the front cover of 'LIFE' Magazine and are now among the world's most photographed animals, as well as having a 'Live Camera' stream their every move in the park.
Today, there are around 160 macaques who make the daily pilgrimage to the onsen each morning, before returning to the forests in the evening to sleep. During the winter months, they will spend most of the day in or around the onsen (as there is just one); bathing, feeding and most importantly, posing for photographs. The onsen is a fairly average size so obviously not big enough for 160 macaques to all fit in, yet the majority of the troop still spend their days in the park, which also, is not that large. And in the summer, even fewer will take a bath, most preferring the cool waters of the river instead. So why do almost 200 wild monkeys still trek through the forest each day to get here? Quite simply, they've been conditioned to. The feeding that was used to lure the macaques home to Jigokudani still continues today. While in the area, the macaques are fed regularly by the park workers (their favourite mixture of barley, soy beans and apples) and allowed to bathe in an onsen that is adjusted accordingly; being kept at 40 degrees in the winter, and 30 in the summer. Though technically wild animals, they still spend every day being photographed by hundreds of tourists from all over the world. Fame comes at a price for monkeys, too.
The countless photos of these macaques that are available don't do justice to the beautiful surroundings in which they live. The 30 minute walk from the bus stop to the park itself is breathtaking in the snow, as is the ancient village of Kourakukan at the foot of the hill and the river that flows past the famous onsen. What the photos also don't capture is just how busy this remote part of Nagano can get. You will encounter dozens of serious photographers with cameras much bigger than your own, and they will stay (probably in your way) for as long as it takes to get the shots they desire, slightly ruining the magical atmosphere that exists pre-9am. The park opens at 9 during the winter and it is undoubtedly worth getting there to be first in the queue. Long before 10, the small area sectioned off to stand in is already crowded, and it begins to feel a lot like a zoo. If you go during these winter months, you'll probably be too cold to stay much longer anyway. My recommendation is to get there before it opens, take your photos while you can and observe the habits of these legendary macaques, before retreating back down the hill for a coffee at the excellent 'ENZA Cafe'. But before you go, make sure to observe the habits of another famous sub-species; humans with big cameras.
To access the Jigokudani Monkey Park from Tokyo is relatively tricky. Once in Nagano you can buy the '1 day Monkey Pass' for ¥ 2900, which covers return travel and entry. This allows you to take either an express bus direct to the park, or a train to Yudanaka Station, at the end of the line, followed by another bus. However, to get before the crowds you will need to take the train; but it does offer much better views of the area and is a very enjoyable hour or so.
To get to Nagano itself is slightly easier, but this is the expensive and deal-breaking part for many. With no hostels in the area, only Ryokans, many will opt for an early Shinkansen there and back in the same day. This will still set you back around 6,000 and you'll still need your 'Monkey Pass' and any other expenditures on top; a lot of money to pay when you may only spend an hour or so viewing the macaques. The solution? As always in Japan; the night-bus. Leaving from Shinjuku just after midnight and arriving at 5am, a Willer Express return ticket (coming back same day) will cost 3800. You may not get the best night's sleep but it does mean you won't be worrying about your money when a tall bloke with a big camera inevitably blocks your view...