Forty seven years ago, in 1970, a very special sight made the front cover of news magazine Life: a Japanese macaque enjoying an hot spa in the mountains. Today the snow monkeys are well known worldwide, but still a lot of travelers ignore the location of Jigokudani Yaen-Koen (“Hell’s valley”) in Nagano prefecture. The way the monkeys behave is nowhere else to be found.
Each year, about a hundred monkeys are coming down the mountain to the “Snow monkey park”, where the hot bath was made for them several years ago. During the cold winter, they are mainly looking for heat and food (provided by the park).
There is no fence in the park: only a few barriers to prevent the humans going further in the mountain. After the ticket gate, the visitors goes along the Yokoyukawa river, down to the hot spring. On the other shore, some monkeys are eating the food provided, mostly apples, soy seeds and oat.
When we have been there, we were not alone. Dozens of visitors/photographers were trying to catch a glimpse from the local celebrities. The snow monkeys were quietly enjoying the hot bath, and did not care a lot about all this.
Of course, even if the snow monkeys seems peaceful and do not pay attention to the visitors, it is not allowed (and might be dangerous) to get too close or try to touch them.
Hunted in the past
In the past, before the park was created, the monkeys were considered as a trouble by local farmers. And sixty years ago, while the first ski station were opening, the animals thus had to leave the mountains to look for food in local fruit fields. Farmers were allowed to kill them.
Another solution was found in the early 1960s. Feeding the monkeys (and observe them) instead of hunting them. The idea came from Sogo Hara, an employee of the Nagano railway company. With the help of other locals and his company, he began to feed the macaques in 1962.
The world first photo
The snow monkeys did not miss the appointment. And Sogo Hara discovered than the younger ones seemed to be curious about the neighboring hot springs. After touching the water for a while, they began to go into the bath. The first photograph is taken by Tomio Yamada, two years before the 1964 official opening of the park.
In 1970, the park became famous worldwide with the Life article and cover.
In the 1990s, the number of visitors reached 206 000, helped by the 1998 Nagano Olympic winter games – Nagano being only 40 minutes by train from the park. In 2014, more than 150 000 visitors came to the Snow monkey park, among them 30% were foreign tourists.
The best time to visit is definitely winter, where the monkeys are naturally coming to the onsen.
How to get there?
From Tokyo, the first step is to reach Nagano (1 hour and a half by Shinkansen). Then take the Dentetsu Nagano line to Yudanaka station, the closest station. Buses are running from there to the park main gate.
From the bus stop, there a 30 minutes walk before reaching the ticket gate (800 yens). In winter, the way might be slippery.