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. 


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! 

Time for Sakura in Japan!

Mar 17 | Evan | No Comments |

 Sakura Flowering Rush about to take place in Japan 2021 March

One of the most popular times of the year for international travelers to visit Japan is spring when sakura, cherry blossoms are blooming. If you have visited Japan during this time, you know the beautiful pink sakura flowers spotted all over the country. For Japanese, sakura is extremely important and symbolic. There are many songs about sakura, and this time of the year, sakura truly holds a special place in Japanese people’s hearts. In this article, let’s dig in deeper about sakura, what it means to Japanese people, but also find out when we are expecting sakura to fully bloom in 2021. Of course, with the travel restrictions, we international travelers cannot visit Japan, but let’s learn about it so that maybe next year in 2022, we get to take a part in a photography tour of Japan to view the beautiful flowers and photograph them. 

The significance of sakura to Japanese people 

For Japanese, March is the month when you graduate or end the school/work year while April is the month of new beginning, to start a new grade, school, or work, thus sakura is extremely symbolic to Japanese to signify these special times of the year. For many Japanese, sakura is the flowers that are blooming at graduation and/or entrance ceremony so they often hold special feelings and memories to Japanese such as departure, end of school, end of relationship, as well as new beginning and new relationship. Yes, it’s a very complex feeling, thus sakura holds a special place in Japanese people’s hearts.

If you ever searched on YouTube for songs titled sakura, you find plenty (You might need to search using katakana, hiragana, and kanji to look for all!).  Let me introduce one from Naotaro Moriyama, which is a very popular graduation song with a title sakura. If you can read the comments in Japanese, take some time to read the comments. Many Japanese people are leaving comments with personal stories associated with this song. Besides from the incredibly talented singer’s voice, the lyrics really speak to Japanese people.  If you are curious about the lyrics, you can easily find the lyrics online, which can be translated instantly in Google search. 

In addition to Naotaro Moriyama’ sakura, let me introduce another sakura by Ketsumeishi. While Naotaro Moriyama’s sakura has a feeling of students graduating from schools and departing from one another, this Ketsumeishi sakura version is for more grownups who are now working and are starting a new chapter in life. 

Besides these two, there are many more songs titled sakura and songs that sing about this time of the year depicting sakura blooming and/or falling down. If you are curious, search more on your own and share with us which sakura song you like. 

Japan is expecting the Sakura Flowering Rush in the 3rd week of March in 2021! 

Ok, let’s get back to this year’s sakura forecast. According to the (use google translate) Japan Weather Association’s Ms. Yoshida, the 2nd week of March has had little ups and downs with temperature, but it has been on a high end so it is expected that sakura is going to start blooming in the 3rd week of March. 

According to Ms. Yoshida, sakura has already flowered in Hiroshima on the 11th of March 2021 and Fukuoka on the 12th of March 2021, which are both the earliest since this recording has been made. This year’s flowering is roughly 10 days earlier than usual and Kyushu Region to Kanto Region is expected to see a flowering rush in the 3rd week of March. 

As of March 13th 2021, Tokyo is expected to flower on the 16th, Nagoya on the 17th, and Osaka on the 19th. The full bloom is expected a week to 10 days since the flowering starts. Unfortunately, sakura viewing, “ohanami” to get together under a sakura tree is prohibited this year again, but Japanese people will be enjoying beautiful sakura very soon. 

Unfortunately, except for Japanese people living in Japan, we cannot enjoy sakura blooming this year in Japan, but I am pretty sure many people will post these beautiful flowers very soon on social media so let’s keep an eye out for it. Also, there are some sakura in the US too so hopefully if you live near sakura in the US, you get to enjoy the beautiful spring flowers soon. Maybe when you see them next time, you might be thinking about what it means to Japanese by remembering perhaps your new favorite sakura song, which Introduced today or you discovered by surfing YouTube.

March 2021 Japan’s current COVID situations and travel restrictions

Mar 14 | Evan | Comments Off on March 2021 Japan’s current COVID situations and travel restrictions |

As of March 14th 2021, no foreigners, both tourists and business people, are allowed to enter Japan. These new strict restrictions were placed because of the new variants of COVID emerging around the world as well as the country’s number of infections increased dramatically in winter. Let’s dive deeper into what’s happening in Japan today and find out when we could take a photo tour of Japan next!

What’s happening in Japan today? 

Last year on October 30th 2020, Japan lowered travel restrictions for certain countries, which have controlled the number of COVID infections. These countries included Australia, Brunei, China (including Hong Kong and Macau), New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. However, with the rise of COVID as well as the new variants of COVID reporting around the world, currently as of March 14th, these programs have been temporarily suspended until further notice. 

The Immigration Services Agencies of Japan indicates that unless there are special circumstances, any foreigners from or those visited 152 countries and regions are barred to travel to Japan today. This includes even the business travelers which come from the special business travel bubbles. 

airplane wing in scenic evening sky

The 2nd State of Emergency 

As of March 14th 2021, the 2nd state of emergency is still in place to these prefectures: Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba. The 2nd state of emergency was planned from January 7th to February 7th initially, but it was extended to March 7th and then further extended for 2 more weeks till March 21st for those 4 prefectures listed above. 

The 2nd state of emergency was placed for eleven prefectures including Tokyo, Aichi, Chiba, Fukuoka, Gifu, Hyogo, Kanagawa, Kyoto, Osaka, Saitama, and Shizuoka.  Originally, on January 7th 2021, the 2nd state of emergency was placed for Tokyo and the greater Tokyo areas including 4 prefectures, Tokyo, Saitama, Chiba, and Kanagawa by the Prime Minister Suga. However, this state of emergency was soon expanded to 7 more prefectures on January 13th 2021 to include Osaka, Kyoto, Hyogo, Aichi, Gifu, Tochigi, and Fukuoka. 

So how is the 2nd state of emergency going? Originally, it was placed till Feb 7th, but with the high number of COVID infections and Japanese medical systems struggling to keep up with the high demand, it was extended till March 7th. With the extension of the state of emergency, most of the prefectures remained, except for Tochigi prefecture, which ended the state of emergency on Feb 7th, the original date. In addition, on March 1st, except for Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, and Chiba prefectures, 6 prefectures ended the state of emergency. 

During this state of emergency, restaurants are expected to close by 8:00p.m., train systems shorten their operation hours, and companies are encouraged to facilitate remote work as much as possible. In addition, sports and entertainment are operating with limited capacities.

Furthermore, with this came the total ban of foreigners to enter Japan. On Feb 9th 2021, the Prime Minister Suga announced all foreign nationals, both tourists and business people (even the ones who were formally welcomed from the travel bubble countried), are barred from entering the country. From what we gathered, it seems it’s not so soon for us to take a part of a photography tour of Japan, isn’t it? 

man in train standing

Will Japan be open for the summer Olympics?

Despite 80% or so Japanese people are against having the summer Olympics in 2021, Japanese government is hoping to still hold the summer Olympics in 2021. With that said, everyone is curious how the country is going to reopen its border safely and if it is even possible. 

According to the survey carried by Kyodo News, 35.3% of people want the Olympics to be canceled while 44.8% of people want it to be postponed. With the Olympics scheduled to be held on July 23rd to 8th and the Paralympics scheduled to be held on Aug 24th to Sep 5th, everyone has a simple question in mind, “is there even enough time?” Moreover, every Japanese is worried “is it even safe for Japanese and the country?” There is only 4 more months till the Olympics and the country is currently completely barring any foreigners to enter, what’s possible in 4 months? 

On the contrary, according to the Japan Times, Japan is considering lifting its bans for foreigners to travel to Japan in April. However, this article was written in October 2020 and since then, a lot has happened and changed and so the reality of this happening is hard to measure. Though this is not the isolated article. There are many media reporting about Japan opening its borders to foreigners some time in Spring to be ready for the Olympics. Though as of March 14th 2021, nothing is certain. There is yet any announcement from the government or the Olympics committee thus we have no idea what is really going to happen at the moment. 

More recent development the media started to report is to have the Olympics without international visitors. Though this excludes sponsors etc. so Japanese people are genuinely worried about what impacts this might still bring to the country. Furthermore, many celebrities originally signed up to take a part of the torch relay have been resigning. Many indicate that the 2021 schedule no longer allows them to participate, but others indicate to exhibit their animosity and uneasiness about being a part of the Olympics during the pandemic. In short, only 4 more months till the Olympics, so much is unknown and there is not a whole lot of support from the Japanese people especially when the government is heavily involved in the Olympics and the Olympics committee is not clearly indicating what course of action to take when it is supposed to happen in the 2021 summer. 

athletes running on track and field oval in grayscale photography

So, can we travel to Japan today (March 14, 2021)? 

Unfortunately, the answer is NO! At the moment, Japan has closed its borders to everyone, even the business travelers who were formally allowed to enter Japan. The only people who can re-enter Japan are the Japanese nationals as well as foreign residents who have been living in Japan with a negative COVID test, which is taken 72 hours before traveling back to the country.  

Though, there is a possibility of Japan slowly and safely opening its borders as early as April 2021 or late spring. With the Pfizer vaccines finally making its way to Japan in Feb 2021, the country is trying to vaccinate as many people as possible just like the rest of the world. As many of you are eager to participate in the Photo Tour of Japan, we hope to update when the border reopens for anybody to travel to Japan or any drastic change is made to Japan’s COVID travel restrictions.

Tour of Japan | Cary Academy Goes to Japan 2019 – FAQ Part 3

Aug 01 | Evan | No Comments |

Sometimes when you’ve visited a place a few times, it can be easy to forget all the little things that you noticed when you first visited. Traveling with someone who has never visited a place helps you to remember what you first noticed and to notice new things as well! Teenagers are especially fun to travel with because they’re not afraid to ask questions. The next couple of blog posts will focus on the “frequently asked questions” that this year’s group asked. Perhaps you’ll have some of the same questions when we visit Japan!

TeamLab Planets

Can we do that again?

Of all the questions our students ask, our favorite is “can we do that again?” or its twin, “can we stay longer?” Most students’ favorite experience on our trip was visiting Team Lab: Planets, an immersive art installation is Odaiba, one of the newer areas of Tokyo created out of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. Team Lab is an artist collective that creates pieces unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. At “Planets”, we jumped in giant bean bags, walked through knee-high water with digital “fish” floating in it, and walked through strings or lights and a room of giant floating spheres. Elements of the installations were static, but typically you’d never experience the same room the same way twice. Your movements and the timing of your visit, combined with the movements of the people around you, create a unique experience each time you visit. Students wanted to go through another time after we finished!

TeamLab Planets 2

Students also really enjoyed Orizuru Tower in Hiroshima. The top of the tower has an amazing observation deck that overlooks the “Atomic Bomb Dome” and the Peace Park and provides a beautiful vantage point to see the entire city and the nearby mountains. “Orizuru” means crane, a reference to the ubiquitous paper cranes associated with Sadako and the children’s peace monument. Students especially liked the slide (yes, like a playground) that made up part of the path down from the top of the tower. They wanted to walk back up and slide again! Other popular “repeat” spots included arcades, ice cream shops, and covered shopping arcades like Teramachi in Kyoto. It’s fun to return to a favorite store or restaurant when I visit Japan, and it’s so rewarding when students want to return too.

That’s it for the “FAQ” and our 2019 trip report. We’re excited about the 2020 trip. Traveling in Japan is always a great experience, and we hope that our students will stay curious and keep asking questions!

This summer, Japan Photo Guide by Evan Pike was once again able to offer a spectacular trip to Japan just for Cary Academy students. Katie Taylor, 6th grade Language Arts teacher and Japan enthusiast, co-led the group with Evan. We began our trip in Tokyo, then traveled to Nagoya, Hiroshima, and Kyoto before returning home from Osaka. This post is written by Katie Taylor, a 6th grade teacher at Cary Academy and Japan enthusiast. Read about our 2016 trip to Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Kyoto or see all reports from the 2018 tour of Japan or 2019 tour of Japan.

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