I so wanted to see Japan’s famous snow monkeys. When we arrived in Japan I did not know where the snow monkeys lived or if we could see them. I assumed they lived on Hokkaido where it is coldest, but when I told Mayumi I wanted to see the snow monkeys during our visit there she was surprised that they might live on Hokkaido. Oh, gomen nasai (sorry)! Bad guess. They actually live in Nagano Prefecture. There are several ski resort areas in Nagano, but one of the reasons I picked Shiga Kogen over the others is so that we would be closest to the snow monkey park.
On Friday, March 24 we set out after breakfast. It turns out the famous snow monkeys live in Jigokudani Yaen-Koen. This park is located in the valley of the Yokoyu River in Yamanouchi, near Yudanaka and Shiga Kogen.
Jigokudani means Hell’s Valley! The barren and long winters, steep cliffs and hot steam rising from the abundant hot springs give the impression that this could literally be Hell’s Valley. However, an “authentic Hell’s Valley” would probably not have such cute inhabitants.
The monkeys that live here are called Japanese macaque. They are large with brown fur and very red faces. It seems to me that the snow monkeys would have red faces from sitting in the hot onsen, but Japanese macaque I’ve seen elsewhere (like on our hikes to Minoh Falls) also had red faces so I guess it’s just the color that God gave them.
Wikipedia says this about the monkeys, and I think it’s probably true: “In Japan, the species is known as Nihonzaru (Nihon 日本 “Japan” + saru 猿 “monkey”) to distinguish it from other primates, but the Japanese macaque is very familiar in Japan, so when Japanese people simply say saru, they usually have in mind the Japanese macaque.”
Since we were 17 people, we arrived in a caravan of cars. We initially were going to take the local bus, which drops you off at the very bottom of a road that leads to the snow monkey park’s trail. But the parking lot for cars is higher up so we were able to skip some of the long walk up. Here is a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) that is just outside of the monkey park entrance. When you pass it you know you are close to the monkeys. If you stay here you can actually soak in the ryokan’s outdoor onsen and the monkeys might get in with you! But watch out for any monkey poop floating by.Here’s the trail entrance. It’s actually a 1.6km hike through a winding path to get to the actual snow monkey park.I had already read a lot of reviewers’ comments about access to the park. Most reviewers said the trail was very slippery. Some said it was icy or muddy, or dangerous or easy or difficult. Most said boots were necessary but a few said sneakers/gym shoes/trainers were all they had and it was fine. One person said he fell and broke his arm near the end of the hike. Some said they rented or bought shoe clamps with spikes to attach to their boots. Some said it took them less than 30 minutes. Some said it took them more than 45 minutes. Most said the earlier the better to avoid the crowds of photographers with their fancy cameras and large lenses. But everyone said it was completely worth the hike and they would do it again. Even the guy that broke his arm.My verdict is that with the recent snowfall I expected more snow and less mud so when I saw that large parts of the trail were very muddy I was bummed. My UGG boots do not like trekking in mud. It wasn’t icy at all and whenever possible I tried to walk in the snow. The hike was beautiful and fun and the kids also enjoyed it. No one complained a bit. And no one slipped or fell in the mud or stepped in monkey poo.
On the way to the main ticket entrance one of the grade 11 teenage boys that was with us told me that when he was a young British lad, like elementary school age, he saw a program on the telly about the snow monkeys in Japan and ever since he has wanted to see them for himself. So this was actually a very special trip for him, that he could actually check this off his bucket list. That’s so awesome!Once we’d paid and were actually inside the confines of the monkey park it was only a short distance to the onsen where the monkeys hang out. It was lightly snowing when we arrived. There were a few monkeys lounging about in the onsen. They seem to like to hang over the edge and rest their chin on the wall and let their arms hang out too. Kawaii!
A lot of monkeys were outside of the onsen running around. Some were scavenging about looking for food in the snow. Some mamas were cuddling their babies. Two monkeys were in the onsen and it looked like they were closely inspecting each other’s fur for lice. Or maybe they were cleaning each other.The monkeys were completely unfazed by the proximity of humans in their space. The longer we stayed the more it began to snow. The younger kids started to get cold so they went inside the visitor center/gift shop. After we had all had our fill of snow monkey antics we started on the hike back. It seemed so much shorter going downhill than up.When we got back to the parking lot we noticed a restaurant called Enza Cafe. We went in to see if there was any chance they could seat a party of 17 for lunch. Miracle! They said yes. They had their entire tatami area open so we took off our muddy shoes and sat on the floor around low tables. Very Japanese. The menu was a mix of Western and Japanese cuisine, but what surprised me were the meal portions. Not very Japanese at all. The portion sizes definitely catered to tourists. We ordered too much food. I don’t think I have been to a restaurant in Japan that served that much food per meal, ever.
After lunch John, Kaiyo, Avalon and I said good-bye to Halyard and the two families that were vacationing with us. One of the families said they would drive Halyard home because he was looking forward to hanging out with his friends over the weekend. After they all left it seemed so quiet and lonely going from 17 people down to 4 of us.
We had a lot of time to spare before the next bus back to our hotel in Ichinose. At the bus stop there was a place called the Shiga Kogen Roman Museum so we went inside to have a look around. There was an exhibit of really cool nature photography. We enjoyed it a lot. By the time we got back to our hotel it had been snowing for most of the afternoon and you could tell it was piling up. We decided that after dinner we would head out for some night skiing in fresh powder.
Now that it’s just four of us we are sitting at a small table for dinner. The staff served us tonight instead of a big buffet. It was a Chinese meal and the dishes would not stop coming. Seriously, I had to tell the staff to take some untouched platters away. But Kaiyo saw the plate of beef that I tried to send back and begged to have it. And after all that he could only eat one piece of meat before he was stuffed! Where was Halyard when we needed him.
After dinner we bundled up and grabbed our skis. It was snowing and the powder was dry and fluffy. We got in about an hour and a half of awesome downhill action before our fingers and cheeks started to burn from the freeze. Kaiyo and Avalon are having a great time skiing, which again is a relief after our slow start in Sapporo. Then it was off to the onsen one last time.
This is a future Christmas card photo taken at the snow monkey park!