Only in Japan? Snow Monkeys that enjoy a hot spring

Apr 15 | Evan | No Comments |

The most famous group of monkeys in Japan can easily be said to the group of monkeys at the hot spring at Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano. If you don’t know which group of monkeys I am talking about, these are the monkeys you might have seen in the photographs of monkeys relaxing at the hot spring in Nagano, Japan. Does it ring a bell? If not, take a look at the Jigokudani Monkey Park official website here to see what I’m talking about. 

They are the only monkeys in the world, which are known to bathe in the hot spring to keep themselves warm during cold winter. The park opened in 1964 and there are currently around 160 monkeys in the area, which come to bathe only during winter. Yes, this scene of monkeys bathing in the hot spring is a rare view only seen at this park. So, if you are not sure winter is a time to travel to Japan, this could be a good enough reason for you to join Japan Photo Guide’s photo tour of Japan to witness and capture the rare scene of monkeys relaxing in a hot spring.

What is “Snow Monkey?” 

So let’s learn more about the monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park. As already stated, the park opened in 1964 and there are 160 or so monkeys living in the area to use the hot spring. However, they do not all come down to the hot spring at once, but they come down in a group of 40 to 50 monkeys. The reason the monkeys come down to bathe is just like us humans, they want to warm their cold bodies during winter. 

The term “snow monkey” is a term created by international media. Even before international media came to this spot, it was a popular destination for Japanese, but ever since the international media gave a spotlight to these one and only monkeys, the number of foreigners visiting Jigokudani Monkey Park has increased tremendously. For example, back in 2012, the total of 130,000 tourists visited the park while 30,000 of them were international visitors. 

Nihonzaru = Japanese Monkey 

The kind of monkeys you see at Jigokudani Monkey Park is Japanese monkey, Nihonzaru. They live over a broad area of Japan except for Okinawa and Hokkaido. If you want to see them, you simply need to head to the mountains. The matter of fact, when I was a child, I saw Nihonzaru in my town as my town is surrounded by mountains in Kanagawa Prefecture just south of Tokyo. They came down to human habitations and there was even a week-long town alert to warn us to be careful not to engage with monkeys when going home and after school. During that week, a group of us saw monkeys at the park, which had a back to the mountain. Even today, I hear that my town and surrounding towns have monkey sightings regularly. 

Japanese monkeys are really everywhere in Japan except for Okinawa and Hokkaido. You get to see them at the zoo as well as randomly in mountainous areas. However, they are wild so you cannot easily spot them by simply heading to the mountains. A park like Jigokudani Monkey Park was created so that anybody can come and observe the monkey for pleasure, but also for research purposes. The truth is, Japanese monkeys have very high social ability, thus the zoo does not showcase everything for us to fully understand them. 

Let’s learn more about Jigokudani Monkey Park! 

Jigokudani Monkey Park is located in Yamanouchi town in Nagano Prefecture, which is at the altitude of 850 meters. During winter, the temperature drops as low as -10 degree Celsius/14 degree Fahrenheit and snow accumulates up to 1 meter/3.3 feet. Yes, the winter in this area is very severe and tough for monkeys as well as humans. 

The park is a cage free park, where Japanese monkeys can come and go as they wish. It was created in 1964 and 1st received international recognition back in 1970 when it was covered by US magazine, LIFE. However, the biggest media exposure was in 1998 when the Nagano Olympics took place. This is when the park received a lot of visitors from the Olympic players, Olympic spectators as well as media. 

The reason the monkeys return to the park is because they are fed in the park. However, the park is just a part of their entire life, thus they go in and out of the park freely. As stated earlier, the Jigokudani Monkey Park area is very cold, thus the monkeys come down to the hot spring to warm their cold bodies. This scene is unique to winter as the monkeys are not so keen to hop in the hot spring during other seasons. So if you want to capture monkeys in a hot spring, you want to visit the park during the cold winter. 

Dos and Don’ts when visiting the park! 

They are wild so please remember the points below when you visit the park or whenever you encounter wild monkeys in Japan. Below points are listed on the official website in Japanese, but they are not translated to English so hope you spend some time before you make your way to the Jigokudani Monkey Park! 

  1. Don’t feed them 
  2. Don’t touch/frighten them
  3. Don’t look straight into their eyes at close distance 
  4. Don’t get too close to them 
  5. Can’t bring in dogs and cats 
  6. You can do photography & videography even with flash 
  7. Can’t use a selfie stick

At the park, even photographing using flash is allowed, but when photographing using a phone, please be careful not to get too close. Additionally, a selfie stick is not allowed in the park as it can potentially frighten monkeys as they could look like a weapon to them. People often tend to lose the idea of distance when using a selfie, thus it’s not safe to use around the monkeys. 

When visiting the park, you need to always remember that they are wild. Little monkeys are curious, thus they may get close to you, but if that happens, please remove yourself away from them so that you can avoid any harm. They can call adults to help if anything happens. Also, looking straight into their eyes means an indication of hostility as well as opening your mouth big. Don’t get too close, always keep distance from them. 

Lastly, since you cannot get too close to the monkeys, bringing a binocular is a good idea suggested by the park to observe them from a distance. 

Finally… 

After seeing photos and videos of monkeys bathing, you might be thinking “I want to go to a hot spring too!” Well,l don’t worry! Even though the park is away from any human habitations, in the same town, there is Shiga Kogen Snow Ski Resort where you can enjoy skiing/snowboarding while warming up your cold body at the hot springs. Going to see the monkeys in the wild is exciting, but if you get to enjoy other aspects of Japan when visiting Nagano would be a bonus, right? By the way, if you want to learn more about Japanese monkeys before you head to Japan with Japan Photo Guide’s Japan photo tour, follow the park official Instagram here and/or watch the live camera of the park so that you can dream of the day to visit and capture the snow monkeys! 

2018 Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan | Japanese Snow Monkeys

Apr 16 | Evan | No Comments |

Along with Chris Weston, I escorted a small group of wildlife photographers in Japan in search of Japan’s Winter Wildlife. View the 2018 Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan Trip Report to see photos of Japanese Snow Monkeys, Red Crowned Crane, Swan, Steller’s Sea Eagles and whatever else we could find!  I’ve already posted about the other Winter Wildlife so this post of the Japanese Snow Monkeys is the last of the 2018 Winter Wildlife tour of Japan.

Japanese Snow Monkeys.  Having spent more than 10 days with them from my combined tours of Japan, I’ not sure what else I can say about them.  Even with spending that many days with the Japanese Snow Monkeys, I still love observing and photographing them.

The walk to get there is a little long (30-40 minutes on narrow and snowy/icy path) but it’s worth it.  After spending just a little time with the monkeys, it’s hard not to smile and enjoy the time with our distant relatives!  I’m already looking forward to the 2019 Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan so I can go back and see the Japanese Snow Monkeys!

2018 Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan | Japanese Red Crowned Cranes in Snow

Apr 12 | Evan | No Comments |

Along with Chris Weston, I escorted a small group of wildlife photographers in Japan in search of Japan’s Winter Wildlife. View the 2018 Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan Trip Report to see photos of Japanese Snow Monkeys, Red Crowned Crane, Swan, Steller’s Sea Eagles and whatever else we could find! This is the second of two posts of the Japanese Red Crowned Crane and next up, the Japanese Snow Monkeys.

So yes, the Japanese Red-crowned Cranes were in the snow the entire time we were taking photos of them, but one morning we had quite heavy snow, which was majestic to say the least.  

Really glad my OMD EM1 Mark II and pro lens were weather proof!  At one point though, the snow was so heavy it was almost impossible to focus, still beautiful though!  More photos of cranes in the snow from the 2018 Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan below:

2018 Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan | Japanese Red Crowned Cranes

Apr 08 | Evan | No Comments |

Along with Chris Weston, I escorted a small group of wildlife photographers in Japan in search of Japan’s Winter Wildlife. View the 2018 Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan Trip Report to see photos of Japanese Snow Monkeys, Red Crowned Crane, Swan, Steller’s Sea Eagles and whatever else we could find! This is the first of two posts of the Japanese Red Crowned Crane and then off to the Japanese Snow Monkeys.

Our last stop in Hokkaido was in Kushiro in search of the Japanese Red-crowned Cranes. There are a few locations you can view and photograph the cranes though having visiting all of them last year, we had a good idea of where and when we wanted to be for the cranes.

The gray crane above is actually ironically a “Common Crane” as it was the only one there that day.  Made for a nice contrast against the snow and other Japanese Red-crowned cranes.  See more photos of the cranes dancing, paying and flying below!

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