I don’t like zoos. I went to several really bad ones when I was young and have really disliked them since. Before our son was even born I had decided I did not want to take him to a zoo (my husband was more flexible on the topic). Instead we would try to introduce him to animals in the most natural settings we could manage. It is a noble idea but in reality we’ve found it a lot more difficult and expensive then we considered. We still make an effort though and Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan was the first trip we made with our son to see animals in their more natural setting.
Jigokudani Yaen-Koen is a wild snow monkey park and the only place in the world where you can find Japanese Macaque (snow monkeys) bathing in the hot springs. In the winter the monkeys make their way down the mountain to the hot springs to relax and bathe. The park is open year round but in the warmer months the monkeys are fed to keep them in the area.
We took the train from Nagano to Yudanaka Station and then the bus to Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop. From the bus stop is it about a 30 minute walk to the snow monkey park. Before our trip we had decided to invest in some good hiking boots…just in case. Were we ever glad we did! The park is in the mountain, it’s quite cold and there is snow. At the same time there are natural hot springs everywhere.
This combination means that absolutely everything is covered in ice! Buildings are covered in icicles and the mountain path, though not a very difficult climb, is covered in ice. The pathway is narrow in places. On one side you have mountain and on the other side of the icy path is a steep drop down to the bottom of the mountain.
We took our time and went slowly and carefully. My heart was pounding the entire walk with our son but we weren’t the only ones with small kids on the path. A lot of people seemed to not be too concerned about the conditions. We even saw a few women in high heels and miniskirts making the trek! We also saw some people fall and get hurt. It’s not the easiest place to get to with a small child but if you wear a good pair of boots and take your time you’ll be fine!
Once we finally got to the pool we were greeted with monkeys both in the pool and climbing the snowy mountains around us. We had been around monkeys in India, Thailand and the Philippines before this and these monkeys were much more chilled out and relaxed. They just kind of sat there in their bath ignoring all of us. There are so many great photo opportunities in the park but the day we went the hot steam kept blowing towards us and it was nearly impossible to get a really clear shot. Even so, some photos turned out pretty well!
Unfortunately for one photographer, this wasn’t enough. He was trying to antagonize one of the monkeys so that she would show her teeth and perhaps lunge at him! His partner told him right off when she saw how concerned everyone around was getting but until she did, he had been completely clueless. These are wild monkeys and I didn’t notice any park staff around. Respectable caution needs to be taken. Most visitors though were great.
There isn’t much else around the park to do but the monkeys alone are worth the trip! After we visited the monkeys we made the hike back to the bus stop. Along the way there is a small rest stop with snacks and restroom facilities. There are some onsen in the area that can be visited and a few accommodations but most people just go to the area as a day trip. Before you head up to the park it is a good idea to check the bus schedule for the return trip. We forgot to and ended up waiting in the cold for about 30 minutes for a bus to arrive. Luckily the scenery at the bus stop is quite beautiful!
How to get there
- From Nagano Station take the train to Yudanaka Station (about 1 hour)
- From Yudanaka Station take the bus to Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop (about 10 minutes)
- Walk to the snow monkey park from Kanbayashi Onsen (about 30 min)
Hours and Cost
- 8:30-5:00 April to October
- 9:00 – 4:00 November to March
- 800 yen