The Monkey Onsen (Snow Monkey)
Jigokudani Yaen-Koen (“Hell Valley”) remains fairly remote & uncrowded, even though it is now quite well-known - as ‘The Monkey Onsen’. Entry fee Y500: worth it.
The monkeys habitually frequent this valley in winter months (late Oct/early Nov till late Mar/early April), spending the daylight hours in & around the onsen pools/Yokoyu River; still likely to be around in warmer weather. The path for visitors takes you right through their habitat; don’t rush - the monkeys although wild are quite used to humans & carry on with their day to day routine regardless.
Photographers & outdoorsy types can enjoy very close proximity to wild monkeys - Japanese Macaques, short-tailed & red-faced (more pronounced in mating season). Life expectancy for these monkeys is about 30 years, and a band can comprise about 250 members in a very structured & hierarchical social system. The photo exhibit next to the ticket office will help you identify the current pecking order.
About a quarter of a mile from the monkey park proper is an old wooden ryokan (“Korakukan” tel. 0269-33-4376) with a rotemburo (outdoor bath), where you are on display to hikers along the path on the otherside of the ravine! Shy? Also indoor pools or get brave when it’s dark.
Enjoy your communion with our genetic cousins more by paying attention to a couple of simple does & don’ts:
- Don’t stare at them; this can be threatening to them. Using a camera, strangely enough, avoids this problem. Do take plenty of pictures; flashes don’t seem to worry them.
- Don’t try to touch them; they will scratch/bite; you don’t want to spend the rest of the day at the hospital, do you? Yes, they look cuddly. So did Chucky.
- Don’t feed them (or yourself). Don’t carry food in your pockets either - they’ll sniff it out. The rangers here do feed the monkeys, but not much & infrequently so that they don’t become dependent; also helps them keep healthy, supplementing their rather sparse winter diet.
- No pets.
- Don’t think about getting in the hot pools with the monkeys. For a start, the water’s about 50 degrees, and the floaty things aren’t pine cones.
At an altitude of 850 metres, it’s accessed by 2km winding footpath (wear good shoes) from car park. Be warned, the road from Shibu Onsen gets to within a 10-15 minute walk from the monkey park, however, the road gets closed in winter. It’s very narrow & in winter icy. You must have studless (winter) tyres & likely chains as well. You can walk the 2km or so from the last bus stop (see below) along the road in about 45 mins. Wrap up well in winter.
Starting your journey from Matsumoto? Give this trip a whole day to accomplish. If you have time, consider staying over at one of the many local ryokan to soak up the real atmosphere of this out of the way destination. Book ahead.
- Getting to Nagano by train will take you about an hour, and then the Nagano dentetsu /Nagaden line - 45 mins, Y1,230 to Yudanaka. (In Nagano station you need to leave the JR part & find the Nagaden line underground -signposted) Then from Yudanaka Station to Kanbayashi Onsen by bus (15 minutes, 220 Yen), from where you can reach the park in a 30 minute walk along a walking trail.
* See this blog for more detailed and up-to-date information.
- By car would allow you to tie in a few other local ‘must sees’, such as the WWII tunnels of Matsushiro, an onsen or two in Yudanaka or Shibu, the fabulous scenery & skiing of Shiga kogen, etc. Head north from Matsumoto along Chuo Expressway (you can take R19 if you really want to kill the day!) past Nagano, to Shinshu Nakano I.C. From there, take R292 towards yamanouchi machi. You’ll see the signs for Jigukudani Onsen pointing off to the left after about 20 minutes- more likely you’ll recognise pictures of monkeys looking cheerful with an arrow!