Meet the most relaxed primates in Japan at this magical onsen.
Onsens and monkeys are a ubiquitous part of Japanese iconography. But the only place they come together in the country (and in the world, for that matter) is at Jigokudani Monkey Park. Located in the “Hell Valley” of the Japanese Alps, an area named for its numerous bubbling hot springs, the park is rich with Japanese macaques, which until the early 1960s were considered more pest than tourist attraction. But now, free from the emotional baggage you might see at zoos, troops of monkeys make like humans, and take time for a little onsen self-care. Read on to learn how you can join these chilled-out primates for an afternoon.
Is It Worth It?
Do you like monkeys? Then the short answer is, “duh, this experience is absolutely worth it.” The longer answer: This is an opportunity to enjoy troops of monkeys, native to the Japanese alps, running, wrestling, playing, and of course bathing in hot springs, from right in the middle of the action with no human intervention.
So, There Are No Cages?
Absolutely none. While the monkeys are encouraged to visit in the morning with a few well-placed treats (who doesn’t love a snack?), the troop is present simply as volunteers, which means on a few super rare days, there might not be any monkeys around. If you stay for any longer amount of time, you’ll notice that groups tend to move in and out of the viewing area, jumping over the stone retaining wall, taking turns dipping in the hot spring, or just wrestling in the snow.
What Kind of Monkey Are We Talking About?
Japanese macaques, a species native to Japan. Thanks to their weather-beaten red faces and long hair, they’ve earned their more common nickname, “snow monkeys.”
How Much Does It Cost?
¥800 for adults, ¥400 for kids under eighteen.
Can I Make the Day Trip From Tokyo?
It’s a popular day trip from Tokyo, but it’s also a bit of a haul since it requires going northwest across the entire country. To do it, take the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano (¥8,400 each way). Once you’re there, you can either take an express bus from the station to the park (¥ 1,400) or the Nagano Dentetsu line to the Yudanaka Station (¥1,160).
If you did the mental math, you’ve probably caught on this is a time and finance-consuming jaunt. So yes, you could go for the day. But given that monkeys tend to enjoy taking an onsen earlier in the day, your best bet is to turn the adventure into an overnight trip and arrive early the next morning.
Great, So Where Should I Stay?
At the bottom of the mountain is a section of Yamanouchi, known as Shibu Onsen, a tiny town known for their nine bathhouses, each which claims to cure a specific ailment. (Special towels are sold, meant to be stamped at each stop of your hot spring tour. Luck is granted to anyone who completes the entire circuit.) They also have a large number of ryokan, traditional onsen-hotels that offer Japanese tatami mat beds, tea services, and on-site baths. While there are certainly high-end options, a stay will usually cost between $50 and $150, and will often include complimentary transportation to the base of the Jigokudani Monkey Park.
How Much Hiking Do I Need to Get In?
Cars can only do so much—at a certain point walking is required to reach the monkeys. Thankfully, it’s about 20 minutes on a well-maintained path with a gentle incline, so going full mountain (wo)man isn’t totally required. However, between snow and rain, it tends to be slick, so take your time, and wear clothes and shoes you wouldn’t mind accessorized with mud.
So Why Do the Monkeys Like the Onsen?
Fun fact: Jigokudani Monkey Park is the only place in the world where you can see monkeys in onsens because it’s a learned, not a natural trait. The tradition started in 1963 when farmers began throwing apples into the local onsen as a way to lure the pests out of their fields. The park was established a year later and caught public attention in 1970 with a Life magazine profile.
It seems to be good for the monkeys. Last year, researchers discovered that the majority of monkeys in the onsen are dominant females and that afterward, their feces contained fewer stress hormones. (Monkeys, they’re just like us!) They were also more likely to make use of the resource during the winter. For that reason, while any time is a good time to visit the park, you’re more likely to catch bathing in action during colder weather months.
Can I Swim With the Monkeys?
While this might seem like a great idea in an idyllic, cartoon version of the world, in reality it would be dirty, kinda gross, and the quickest way to get thrown out of the park. (Yup, totally not allowed.) If seeing monkeys from the comfort of a natural spring is important to you, stay on the right side of hygiene, and book a room at the nearby Jigokudani Onsen, where you can watch the macaques from hillside, human-only baths.
How Much Time Will I Spend There?
From April to October, the park is open 8:30 am to 5 pm. From November to March it’s open 9 am to 4 pm. If you’ve got even a passing interest in photography, you could easily stay from open to close—and then find yourself considering a return visit. (Yes, it really is that cute.) However, most guests tend to spend an hour or two enjoying the action.