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Hot Springs and Snow Monkeys: Four Seasons in “Hell Valley” (Photos)

Kobayashi Hideki (Photographer)[Profile]

Japanese macaques are unusual among monkeys in preferring a cold habitat to a tropical or subtropical one. Like most Japanese, these “snow monkeys” like nothing more than soaking in a hot-spring bath in winter. Here we showcase Kobayashi Hideki’s photos of these endearing creatures.

Jigokudani, literally “hell valley,” is an area in the north of Nagano Prefecture famous for the monkeys that like to take a dip in its onsen waters. The Yokoyugawa river flows down from the Shiga Highlands in Jōshin’etsu-kōgen National Park into a ravine surrounded by steep cliffs where hot springs well up constantly from underground. Macaque monkeys have been living in this area since ancient times. In 1964, the Jigokudani Yaen-Koen, also known as Jigokudani Monkey Park, opened with the aim of limiting disturbances to the macaques’ habitat, which is why visitors are forbidden from feeding or touching the monkeys.

Monkeys Take Up Bathing

After the park opened, some monkeys were found enjoying a soak in the outdoor baths of a nearby ryokan (inn). It was decided to make the monkeys a pool of their own within the park. This was completed in 1967, and before long other monkeys were using it. Researchers and tourists from Japan and around the world now flock to Jigokudani to see the monkeys that have acquired this unique habit.

Winters are harsh in this part of Japan, with snow piling up to over two meters high and the temperature rarely climbing above zero. All sorts of macaques gather in the park’s hot spring pool to thaw out their chilled bodies. There is an older monkey with snow on his head, his eyes shut in a blissful expression. Not far from him, a mother and baby snuggle up together. Meanwhile, a female monkey dozes off as she warms up in the pool.

From the looks on their faces, it’s clear that the monkeys are enjoying their bath. But one monkey off the side refuses to get in and join the others. Maybe he just doesn’t like hot springs. But the onsen aficionados among the monkeys don’t mind soaking for two hours, so by the time they climb out they almost faint from dizziness.

Four Seasons in the Monkey Park

Baby monkeys are born in the spring, when the trees begin to bud and food is easy to find. A female monkey generally gives birth to one baby every other year. Monkeys are born with a full coat of fur and their eyes open. For the first week or so the babies cling constantly to their mothers, but after that they start to walk unsteadily on all fours.

It’s fascinating to watch a monkey take its first faltering steps away from its mother, then tumble and cry out in distress. You can’t help feeling a warm glow at the sight of its mother rushing to help the baby, her eyes brimming over with affection.

Amid the deep green scenery of summer, the monkeys molt, replacing their winter coats with short-haired fur to suit the warmer weather. Adults try to escape the heat by resting in the shade, while the little ones burn off their energy swimming in the pool or chasing each other along the river bank. In autumn, the monkeys gather chestnuts, grapes, and other nutritious food from the forest to help them get through the winter. When the trees in the surrounding mountains begin to change color, mating season begins. Male monkeys, their faces and rumps a deeper red than usual, desperately seek out partners.

By photographing the lives of these monkeys throughout the year, they have come to seem more like people than animals to me, My hope is that Jigokudani Monkey  Park, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, can be maintained as an environment where people can learn more about and gain a better appreciation of monkeys.

(Original Japanese article and photographs by Kobayashi Hideki posted on October 22, 2014. )

  • [2014.10.22]

Born in 1942. Began taking photographs while working at a chemicals company. Started photographing of monkeys at Jigokudani in 1998. His photography collection Life: Jigokudani ni ikiru (Life: Living in Jigokudani) was pubished in 2008. An exhibition of his photographs of snow monkeys was held at Shiga Kōgen Roman Museum.

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