“I viewed my fellow man not as a fallen angel, but a risen ape.” — Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal.
Their mannerisms aren’t so different from ours, really, apart from the public grooming. Moms take care of their babies. Some are gregarious and some are shy, stealing a sideways glance and hoping you won’t make eye contact. The youngsters are curious, especially when it comes to cameras. Rambunctious teenagers seem to know the ‘look.’ The older folks are tired; nothing seems to surprise them anymore.
There isn’t anything they seem to enjoy more than lazing in the sun on stone slabs after emerging from the hot springs, napping away as the world passes them by. And the idiosyncrasies go on, with a comical resemblance to our own. Although the red faces and fur-covered bodies are a telling differentiator.
In the Japanese Alps
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is home to a troop of Japanese macaques. If you have an inner Jane Goodall or Louis Leakey waiting to discover how similar we are to primates, Jigokudani, meaning Valley of Hell, is the place to observe—and photograph—these monkeys in the wild. They’re no strangers to cameras. I came to know about them after they graced the cover of Life magazine.
The snow monkey park is located near Yudanaka, a village in the Japanese Alps not far from the Nakasendo Trail and its magical post towns. Unlike the pinging pachinko machines, jumbotrons, and massive neon signs that compete for your attention in the capital, quiet shrines and temples are the norm.
Just outside Yudanaka’s train station, a public onsen or hot spring-fed pool invites travelers fresh off the train to ditch their shoes and socks and dangle their feet in the warm water. Locals do the same.
Although the earth boils, steams, and belches here, the urgency, industriousness, and hyper-productivity that are pervasive in Tokyo take a backseat to parking yourself on the wooden bench and defrosting from your feet up as you watch Japanese vacationers shuffle around in yukata (cotton kimonos) while onsen-hopping.
Even browsing in a woodworker’s shop leads to a leisurely cup of tea made from leaves he stores in his hand-turned canister. Time passes easily—despite my ineptitude speaking Japanese.
Ryokans (Japanese-style inns) invite lounging too, over meals and in the onsen. About the only time constraints are those imposed so that soaking time doesn’t overlap with that of another guest. Consideration for others is the norm. Here, as elsewhere in Japan, this notion of awareness of others, of a collective consciousness, keeps the country running smoothly.
The Park’s History
The trail to Jigokudani passes through an old growth forest thick with fragrant cedars and pines and by waterfalls that appear each spring. Sogo Hara, a local man and avid hiker, frequented Jigokudani and watched as a troop of wild macaques flirted with disaster as ski resorts encroached upon the macaques’ mountain home.
Driven into an ever smaller area, the monkeys came closer to villages and began raiding farms. They also learned the joy of soaking in the only outdoor onsen in the area—one that guests at the Korakuken Resort used. It was a matter of monkey see monkey do. None of the humans were amused. And unfortunately frustrated farmers started killing these clever primates.
Called to action, Sogo Hara established the park in 1964 and built pools fed by the hot springs. Although the park doesn’t have fences, the macaques are enticed into staying within its bounds with thrice daily snacks of barley, soybeans, and apples. The primates are free to come and go as they please, foraging for the balance of their food. It seems however, they usually stay close to the water; especially during the four or so months when snow is on the ground.
The wild Japanese macaques you see during a visit have not only survived, but thrived, under the conservation efforts started by Sogo Hara all those years ago. As opposed to other places in the world, the relationship is symbiotic. They have a few snacks and spa time. We have an unadulterated view of Japanese macaques in the wild.
Yukata Maybe, Red Vest Never
I recently read a quote from Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan, PhD., which still makes me laugh. Ryan says, “I’d been traveling in Asia long enough to know that monkeys there are nothing like their trombone-playing, tambourine-banging cousins I’d seen on TV as a kid. Free-living Asian primates possess a characteristic I found shocking and confusing the first time I saw it: self-respect.
“If you make the mistake of holding the gaze of a street monkey in India, Nepal, or Malaysia, you’ll find you’re facing a belligerently intelligent creature whose expression says, with a Robert DeNiro-like scowl, ‘What the hell are you looking at? You wanna piece of me?’ Forget about putting one of these guys in a little red vest.”
It rang true as I remembered an attitudinal orangutan that yanked on a girl’s ponytail and scared our wits out of all of us at a Sumatran Orangutan Reserve. But the snow monkeys are a whole different class of creature. They were well-groomed and mannerly toward visitors and each other, except for the occasional tussle over barley.
If You Go
Stay for a night or two (unfortunately Yudanaka is a bit far to make it a feasible destination for a planning a great day trip from Kyoto or Tokyo) to give yourself time to really enjoy the onsen and get a few close-ups of the snow monkeys.
Whether you want to know more about the Land of the Rising Sun’s great outdoors or life in its big cities, our Japan Travel Guide will show you all you need to know.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.