“Snow Monkeys” Enjoy Hot Spring Bathing at Jigokudani Yaen-Kōen, Nagano Prefecture

Guide to Japan Travel

Japan has a wealth of hot springs, and the Japanese have a love of bathing. During the winter, people visit inns nestled in valleys where they can enjoy taking warm soaks in outdoor spring-fed baths while enjoying the snowy scenery. And some Japanese macaques, or “snow monkeys,” also indulge in this pleasure. The best place to see them doing so is at Jigokudani Yaen-Kōen, also known as Jigokudani Monkey Park, located in Yamanouchi, Nagano Prefecture.

It seems that macaques also bathe in hot springs elsewhere in Japan. However, the locations are deep in the mountains far from the beaten track and difficult to find. But in Jigokudani (“Hell Valley,” so called because of the sulfurous steam from its hot springs) humans have built a bathing spot for the snow monkeys that is easily accessible to visitors. The simians were originally lured to the spot with food, and then they started bathing regularly. The best season for observing them is winter, when the area is bitterly cold and the monkeys, often with a dusting of snow on their fur, warm their bodies by taking leisurely soaks.

The macaques that bathe here now receive regular snacks placed at fixed spots by park staffers, and visitors are forbidden to give them treats. So they have learned not to pester people for food. But since the snacks are not enough to keep them alive, they still need to fend for themselves. The park’s Japanese name includes the word yaen, meaning “wild monkeys,” and the simians here are free to come and go as they please. Jigokudani Yaen-Kōen positions itself as a place where people can observe Japanese macaques in something close to their natural state.

(Originally published in Japanese. Created in cooperation with Goolight.)

tourism nature animal Nagano snow monkey winter