Japanese Macaque monkeys can be found in various locations throughout Japan, but only at Jigokudani Yaenkoen can one observe the monkeys bathing in hot springs. These monkeys are more popularly known as Snow Monkeys and have featured in many nature documentaries filmed by people of international renown. However, there is always room for one more humble commentary on these wild enchanting creatures.
Jigokudani is about a forty-minute bus ride from Nagano Station, followed by a walk of thirty to forty minutes to reach the monkey park located in a valley near the Yokuya River – a mountainous area in central Japan. Given that Nagano (the host city for the 1998 Winter Olympics) is less than two hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen, the visit can be made as a day trip.
This post is the first of a two-part blog, with today’s post concentrating on giving some idea of the area where the monkeys live, as well as introducing the monkeys of course. In the next post, I will share more images of young monkeys and their parental bonds.
The photographs were taken over two visits on consecutive days, with each of the days providing quite different experiences. There was an air of tension on the first day, apparently due to the comings and goings of the community’s dominant adult males. They are used to getting their own way and one did not need to be an expert naturalist to observe the hierarchical nature of the community. As is found in most wild animal communities, size and strength are key attributes.
Visitors should heed the warnings that the animals are wild, albeit used to and reasonably comfortable with the close presence of humans. I found this out firsthand when my confidence rose and I ventured too close for a photograph. My subject took offence, became snarly and charged. His bluff was enough and I retreated – warned and unharmed, not to mention providing some entertainment for others present. A little while later a Japanese woman was similarly charged and we enjoyed a short conversation about our war stories.
I clearly remember her saying that despite being hit on the leg, she still loved the monkeys.
On the second day and in the absence of the dominant males, the atmosphere was more relaxed and free from any aggression. Perhaps this is not unlike human communities where moods can vary in accordance with those present and the underlying social dynamics. Each monkey has their role and it is fascinating to be able to observe their social interactions at such close quarters.
I visited when autumn was yielding to winter, as can be appreciated from the first image of an adult monkey bathing in the hot spring, masked by the rising steam hitting the cold air. He was considerably warmer and more comfortable than I was at that time.
Pics 2 to 5 provide a rough chronology of the walk to the monkey park. Pic 2 shows the view of the valley from the Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop, followed by a section of the path (pic 3) one takes to reach the snow monkeys. The climb is quite gradual and apart from a couple of steep sections is not arduous. One is almost there (pic 4) when the little village comes into view, where onsen type accommodation is available if one wished to stay on the mountain. My first view of the monkeys (pic 5) was that of several scampering over roofs and I am sure the residents’ windows are kept closed. When viewed together with pics 11 and 12, it can be seen that apart from the luxury of their hot springs, the monkeys are living in a challenging physical environment where snow covers the ground for some four months every year.
The remaining photographs feature the stars of the show and present monkeys enjoying the warmth of the pool (pics 7 and 8); sharing each other’s warmth (pic 10); monkeys in pensive mood (pic 14) and posturing pose (pic 15). You may have guessed that pic 9 is one of the dominant males mentioned earlier. A wider shot would have shown him commanding the pool without a care in the world.
In closing, I would like to say hello to Vladina and Jonathan whom I met during my visit and who, I am sure, have been expecting the Snow Monkeys to make an appearance on my blog. Here they are and I hope they bring back happy memories.
(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)
May 4, 2014 at 7:13 pm
Delightful, as always, dear friend.
You were right – I did indeed enjoy perusing your thoughtfully written post (part 1) and browsing these captures.
It’s been a draining start to what seems like a heavy going set of weeks of work on my end, so it felt good to note that reading your initial paragraphs of thought had a wonderful and calming effect (as I can only guess was so for the Japanese monkeys soaking in the pools above) for me as I settled into enjoying the rest of your enjoyable post. Thank you for these precious moments of respite touched with delight.
While I love how you take your readers by hand and guide us through what you saw on your trip, I have always enjoyed the accompanying captures you have chosen (as you know). Still, while the captures of the ‘snow monkey country’ and rock pools are lovely, the best for me this time seem to be the ones that reveal a little more of the depth of character (none too easy to capture on a camera, I believe) of the monkeys themselves, especially in pictures 7 and 15 – I thought a certain sense of warm relish could be read in those postures – beautiful moments of abandonment to one’s gratitude (to warmth in cold, cold weather) captured there!
Take good care and stay well, my friend
May 4, 2014 at 10:01 pm
It’s pleasing to hear that the post provided some calming respite from the rigours of work. Relaxing in a hot spa does sound pretty good, but I don’t think I’d like the other parts of the monks’ lives :). In Part 2 (to be posted soon) I will be concentrating more on the monkeys, where I think you may see more examples of their individuality and personality. Remember to keep finding moments of respite over the next few weeks and take care.
May 4, 2014 at 10:25 pm
Hehe, looking forward to Part 2, with all the more anticipation (and gentle, good humour) now 🙂
Thank you, my friend. O-genki de!