Everybody knows about Nagano’s Snow Monkeys. They’ve been on the TV… they’ve been in the New York Times… they’re even rumoured to have had a paw in the concept design for Bathing Ape T-shirts (But that is JUST a rumor, so don’t sue this website:)
But less widely-known among foreign visitors is that top Nagano-destination Kamikochi also has its fair share of wild Macaque monkeys. There are said to be 2 troops that live in Kamikochi along the banks of the Azusa River in the Japan Alps National Park. The Myojin troop alone has a population of about 70 monkeys, and we must have met most of them on a recent trip because the Myojin-bashi Bridge area was swarming with the little beasts who seemed untroubled by the pelting rain.
There were so many of them that I was sure the numbers must be on the increase, but one of the Visitor Centre Staff told me that this was not the case; according to their research, the populations have remained stable over the past few years. The same cannot be said for their range of movement; last Sunday morning they could be seen frolicking on the banks of the river, crossing the bridge and swinging on its metal support wires.
Unlike Jigokudani, where the Snow Monkeys live, the only time you are likely to see the Kamikochi monkeys actually IN the water is in March, as the first signs of Spring appear. Although the air temperature is still brutally cold, (it drops down to minus 25 degrees centigrade in the Winter) the river water is a few degrees warmer, although nothing like as cosy as at Yudanaka Onsen.
And even in the darkest depths of winter, the Azusa river is still home to Iwana. Although it is hotly disputed if the monkeys actually eat these fish, they may well gain nutrition from insects living on and around the river, as well as solace from this lifeline for local wildlife. More usually, the Kamikochi monkeys live off a diet of plant shoots and roots, topped up with dwarf bamboo sprouts and tree bark in the Winter, when they lie low over long periods, sticking close to their food source and sheltering from fierce snowstorms.
We visited in late June, towards the end of the breeding season, and saw lots of little baby monkeys piggybacking a free ride across the bridge. When the summer comes around the monkeys are on the move again, clambering up the steep sides of the Hodaka Range to reach the Alpine meadows and peaks above.