Up in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, you might find someone other than your travel partner sharing the onsen with you.
You’ve probably all seen the iconic pictures, a snow-crusted monkey gazing into a camera lens while he luxuriates in the volcanic waters of a hot spring. With a little planning (and some shoes with excellent traction), you can be that photographer on your next trip to Japan.
Jigokudani Onsen sits in the mountains about an hour’s train ride from Nagano City. (Well, an hour on the train, and then 30 minutes on the bus and then a good bracing twenty minute walk to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, to be exact. 🙂 ) The area makes a refreshing trip at any time of year but I personally think the winter visit is most atmospheric. The park is the home of two groups of Japanese macaques who come down from the higher altitudes in the colder months to bathe in the steaming pools. It’s one of the most photogenic sights I’ve come across in Japan.
Japanese macaques can be found throughout the archipelago, with the exception of Hokkaido and Okinawa. They’re one of the most recognizable animals in Japan with their telltale red face and shaggy fur. With relatively little fear of humans, it means travelers to Japan have a great chance of seeing these creatures in their mountain habit, as opposed to behind the bars of a zoo. Indeed, the hot springs of Jigokudani Monkey Park are often ringed on a daily basis with both professional photographers and amateur shutterbugs. Still, the icy hike into the woods keeps away the throngs for the most part and the park is adamant that visitors following the posted protocol with regards to giving the monkey’s their due space. While the logistics of getting here might seem a bit daunting, the experience of seeing the monkeys is one of my top memories of Japan.
You can watch the monkeys in action and learn more about their lives and habitat on the Jigokudani Monkey Park’s English website.