Friday, February 06, 2009
Jigokudani Monkey Park: For watching snow monkeys bathe in hot springs!
A relatively young, probably female, snow monkey relaxes in the sulfurous natural hot springs in January at Jigokudani, Japan. The mountainous valley is part of the Joshin-Etsu Kogen National Park and is near Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. The area gets plenty of snow during the winter and is quite cold, but the monkeys have adapted to the environment, growing thick coats during the harsh winter. They are the northernmost dwelling monkeys in the world and are native to Japan.
The area was difficult to get to. However, that did not stop throngs of tourists from being there. I think the vast majority of them arrived on tour buses. We took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Nagano and then hitched a ride on a series of much, much slower trains to the town of Yudanaka. There, we caught a bus up to Kanbayashi Onsen after which we walked the 30 minutes to the entrance to the monkey park. It took 4 hours all told.
There was apparently a direct train we could have been on that goes more or less straight to Yudanaka, but we unfortunately ended up on about 4 different trains, having transfered from one train to another repeatedly — and spent about 45 minutes standing around for a train in the middle of nowhere at one point. It was super cold. And, the path to the monkey park began with a very steep slope that, being winter, was icy and very difficult to safely negotiate, especially coming down. So, if you plan to visit this monkey park at the best time of year (when the snow is falling) be prepared and carry a walking stick or crampons or something. And, be sure to catch the speedier, direct train to Yudanaka!
After all was said and done, the monkey park experience was well worth the effort. Once there, we got to watch monkeys swim, dive in, fight, groom and play until we just got too cold to stand it any longer. Standing near the hot spring kept me warmer, but it smelled strongly of sulfur and the rocky rim was covered with monkey poo. That didn't stop me from getting in close to snap some photos though!
Instead of elbowing my way into the crowd of photographers with huge camera lenses and expensive looking cameras, I bided my time and figured out the rhythm of the place. Once feeding time came, the monkeys cleared out of their swimming hole and so did all of the people. When I sensed that the monkeys were just about done eating, I headed for the poop-coated rocky edge of the hot springs and staked out a spot. Soon I was joined by the throng of cameras. You'd think Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were there skinny dipping!
The monkeys didn't mind the paparazzi presence at all.