Winter might be coming to an end down here in Kyushu, but further north – especially in the Nagano region – things are still snowy and white. But truthfully, that’s the perfect time to visit the monkeys of Jigokudani Onsen. Chances are you’ve seen the pictures. The Japanese macaques (or “snow monkeys” as they are so endearingly called) are one of Japan’s more iconic sights. The pictures of them relaxing in their steaming onsen in the Nagano Mountains are all over the web, as well as in guidebooks and travel magazines.
So how do you get there? Well, truthfully, it’s not that easy. The books might all say “Nagano”, but that means Nagano Prefecture, not Nagano City. First, get yourself to Nagano City, the prefecture’s rather attractive capital. Now, hop on a local train to Yudanaka Onsen. It will take around 44 minutes and cost ¥1260. At Yudanaka Onsen, catch the bus outside the station to Kanbayashi Onsen (10-15 minutes, ¥310, 1-2 buses an hour).
Think you’re there yet? Not quite! From the bus stop at Kanbayashi Onsen, follow the signs up the hill to the path through the forest that lead to the Jigokudani Monkey Park. The walk will take around 20-40 minutes. Why the discrepancy in time? Well, on days when the trail is covered in snow and ice, the going can be quite slow. Sturdy footwear with good traction is a must unless you want to spend most of the walk on your rear.
At the end of the trail, you’ll finally have reached the monkey park. A small visitor center is at the entrance to the park, with information (mostly in Japanese) on the monkeys and pictures of the current and former alpha males. From there, follow the crowds – or the monkeys themselves – to the sole onsen pool against the mountains. The monkeys won’t take any notice of you; they’re incredibly used to humans. (But don’t think that gives you the okay to feed or touch them. That’s a definite no.)
The monkeys come down from the mountains during the day to enjoy their soak before returning to the hills at night. Your best photo ops will come from the edge of the onsen, though don’t be surprised if you’re jostling with fifty other photographers to get the shot you want. Sometimes, it can be more entertaining to watch the people instead of the simians. Focus on someone or something else a bit too much, however, and you’re liable to find the monkeys have rifled through your backpack and made off with your travel snacks.
Admission to the monkey park is ¥500 and the park is open year-round, 8:30am to 5pm from April to October and 9am to 5pm from November to March. While a summer visit is possible, it’s much more atmospheric when the hills are covered in snow.