The blissful look on the adorable faces of the macaque monkeys, heads frosted with snow as they soak in their steaming hot onsen bath, has become a global phenomenon. No trip to Japan would be complete without coming to see and photograph the famed “snow monkeys” of Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park. Just be sure to recharge your camera’s batteries before going – you’re bound to take literally hundreds of pictures of the irresistibly cute macaques.
The snow monkeys, oblivious to the camera-wielding paparazzi, are simply in their own environment. Youngsters splash in and out of the hot spring while moms tend to their babies and the alpha male watches over the troupe. Their fascinating social structure can be observed, not from behind a fence as in a zoo, but right there directly in the monkeys’ midst.
At the Park
Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park is first and foremost a research park. The monkeys are fed enough so they don’t scavenger off for good, but are not fed so much as to become dependent on humans for food. As the ‘snow monkey’ moniker infers, the park is located in snow country, an unusual habitat for monkeys. No one knows for sure when the monkeys first discovered the hot springs, but find them they did and the park continues to be the only place in the world where monkeys soak in an onsen in nature.
Jigokudani’s resident troupe is made up of over 200 monkeys. The babies born in spring time are cute little bundles of fur that frolic all over the place, making the green season an equally rewarding time to go. The park is located at the end of a 30 minute walk through a picturesque cedar forest from Kanbayashi, a convenient 45-minute bus ride from Nagano Station.
After Seeing the Monkeys
One of the perks of going to see the snow monkeys is that Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park is in close proximity to both the Yudanaka-Shibu onsen district and the ski resort of Shiga Kogen. Just downriver from the park, Shibu Onsen features a classic cobble stone street lined by multi-story wooden ryokan inns, some straight out of an anime movie. Guests there get to go for a stroll in their yukata robe and wooden geta sandals for onsen-hopping at the public bath houses.
Or, you can go up past Jigokudani to Shiga Kogen, a ski mecca in the winter and trekking paradise in the green season.
Back down at Nagano City is the venerable Zenkoji Temple, and the quaint chestnut town of Obuse is a popular stop along the way.
By Public Transportation
The park is at the end of a 30-minute promenade from the trailhead at Kanbayashi Onsen.
Nagaden Bus operates a limited number of express busses each day from Nagano (East Exit, Platform #3) and Iiyama Stations bound for Shiga Kogen that stop at Kanbayashi Onsen (“Snow Monkey Park” bus stop, approx. 45 min., 1400 yen). Alternately, there is more frequent train service from Nagano Station via the Nagano Dentetsu line (starts out as a subway on the Zenkoji Exit side; take to the end of the line, Yudanaka, 50 min. via Express, 1260 yen / 70+ min. via Local, 1160 yen). From Yudanaka, hop on a local Nagaden bus bound for Shiga Kogen (Snow Monkey Park stop, 7 min., 210 yen) or bound for Kanbayashi Onsen (Kanbayashi Onsen stop which is even closer to the trailhead, 15 min., 210 yen). During the winter, Shibu Onsen runs a Holiday Shuttle bus on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from Yudanaka Station, stopping at Shibu Onsen to the otherwise inaccessible (in the winter) Jigokudani Toll Parking (800 yen, reservations suggested). From the parking lot, it’s a shorter (15 min.) but steeper walk to the park.
NOTE: Nagano Dentetsu offers a reasonable Snow Monkey Pass that covers the above-mentioned routes (2900 yen, including park admission; purchase at Nagano Dentetsu train station entrance at Nagano Station).
From the Shinshu Nakano IC on the Joshin-etsu Expressway, take Route 292(Shiga-Nakano Toll Road) to the Kutsunoshibu IC for access to the Jigokudani Toll Parking (Tel# 0269-33-5733 for GPS purposes; inaccessible in winter). From there it is a relatively short (15 min.) but steep hike to the park. In the winter, use the Yaenkoen Parking Lot at the Kanbayashi Onsen trailhead (near ENZA Café, tel# 0629-38-1736).
Information Center is located inside Nagano Station.
The Yudanaka / Shibu / Kanbayashi onsen resorts offer a wide range of accommodation. Additional lodging available higher up at Shiga Kogen (highlands), as well as back down in central Nagano City.
The park and the trails to it tend to be muddy, so sturdy, waterproof footwear is recommended. (Boot rental available at the Snow Monkey Resorts Info & Gift Shop at the trailhead entrance.)
Typically a few days a year, usually during the fall mating season, the monkeys do not come down from the mountain to the park. These days cannot be predicted in advance, but the Information Center inside Nagano Station would have updated status.