This past weekend we checked something off our ever-growing bucket list: seeing the snow monkeys at the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano.
About Jigokudani Monkey Park:
Nestled in the valley of the rushing Yokoyu River, the valley was christened “Jigokudani” which literally translates to “Hell Valley,” due to the extremely steep mountain cliffs and fountains of hot, scalding water.
Opened in 1964, the park has since attracted thousands of people who come to see the mysterious Japanese Macaques up close. The park gained more popularity after a picture of a snow monkey appeared on the front page of LIFE Magazine, and also gained momentum after the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.
As we saw for ourselves, the park has an incredibly magical quality that continues to draw people from across the globe.
Reaching the Monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park:
The park is located in Yamanouchi, a district in northern Nagano, and is situated in the natural habitat of wild Japanese Macaques, which are most commonly referred to as Snow Monkeys.
The trek to the monkeys began with a 1.6 km walk through a dense forest, which is clear in the summer and spring, but very snowy and icy during the winter months. We were told that the walk would only take 25 minutes, but due to the high risk of slipping, we took our time, and arrived at the main entrance in about 35 – 40 minutes.
After making it through the forest, we passed by the Korakukan Ryokan, and then walked up a set of steps to reach the park entrance where we bought our tickets.
From there, we walked down another path that led us to the natural hot spring, and of course, the snow monkeys.
A Dream Come True:
We knew before arriving in Nagano that there was a possibility of not seeing any monkeys. When you deal with wild, free-roaming animals, it’s inevitable that they might not cooperate, or choose to stay away from the crowds.
During warmer months, the likelihood of seeing a snow monkey is very low, but because we went in January after a heavy snowfall, our hopes were pretty high.
All expectations were met.
While the hot spring was much smaller than we thought it would be, there were hundreds of snow monkeys on the mountainsides, and a few soaking in the water. The monkeys roam freely, and at times run by you with inches to spare. Park employees do come to distribute food to the monkeys, but other than that, the animals are free to come and go as they please. A few of the mothers were carrying their babies on their backs, and a few sat eating snow and berries in the valley below. Overall, the monkeys were very peaceful, and are definitely used to seeing hundreds of people stare at them (and “ooh” and “ahh”) each day.
Looking back, I still can’t believe that this park actually exists, or that I was even there. It was a surreal experience to look up and see little monkeys standing around me, and to watch a few soaking in the hot springs like old Japanese grandpas.
It’s difficult to express just exactly how amazing the park is; it is so worth it to make the trek to Nagano. The walk to the park itself was also beautiful, and despite the dangerous ice, I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
Your Visit to Jigokudani Monkey Park:
A few things to keep in mind when planning your trip to the park are: where to stay, when to visit, and how early to get to the park.
1. Where to Stay:
There are two main hot spring towns nearby the park; Shibu Onsen and Yudanaka Onsen. I can’t say too much about Yudanaka Onsen, but we stayed at a ryokan in Shibu Onsen, and it was well worth the cost. Our ryokan included an onsen key, which gave us access to all nine onsens in the town, as well as a shuttle that took us directly to the lower entrance of the park. Staying at the Shibu Onsen made our trip even better, and I would recommend spending a day exploring the onsen towns before seeing the monkeys. If the idea of getting naked in front of strangers weirds you out, read this, and then just do it anyway – you won’t regret it.
2. When to Visit:
Winter! Winter! Winter! I cannot stress this enough: winter time is prime monkey time. If you’re like us, a trip to Nagano is a once in a lifetime type of thing – even though we currently live in Japan, there are so many other places we want to visit, and we probably won’t go to Nagano again. That being said, you don’t want to get there and not see monkeys.
3. What time you should arrive:
From what we saw, you should get to the first entrance (where you start the 1.6 km walk) about half an hour before the park opens. When we left the park, a large group of tourists had just arrived and began crowding around the hot spring. Depending on when the park opens (it varies depending on the month), plan your visit accordingly to be sure that you’re not fighting through a sea of people to get a look at the monkeys.
8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. from April to October
9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. from November to March
Adults (18+): ¥800
Children (6 – 17): ¥400
For groups of 20 people or more:
Most ryokans in the area offer shuttle services to the lower entrance of the park, but there is also a bus service that runs from the Yudanaka train station, and drops you off about 5 minutes away from the lower entrance.