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.)