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! 

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!

2017 Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan | Short Video With Olympus OMD EM1 Mark II

Mar 23 | Evan | No Comments |

I’ve been a Nikon guy since my first photography class in 1998.  First was film but quickly switched over to digital and never looked back but now it’s time to look forward.  Mirrorless cameras have been around for a while but the technology is now reaching a point that I believe is similar to when digital was starting to seriously challenge film.  In December Olympus released their flagship mirrorless micro 4/3 camera, the OM-D E1 Mark II and I was eager to get my hands on one.  The main attractions to me were the smaller size (less weight makes a huge different for my physical condition while traveling), amazing image stabilization (I can hand hold what is essentially a 840mm lens and get great results with photo or video), and other features like live composition and pro capture.  I might do a review OM-D E1 Mark II after my next tour of Japan in cherry blossom season but the short answer is that so far so good!  Partly because of the image stabilization I wanted to do a little test video.  It’s been a while since I’ve done any kind of video really, but I was quite happy with the results in the limited testing I did with it.  Of course I probably only had about 5 minutes of raw footage to make this 2 minute clip out of, which really isn’t anywhere close to having enough for amazing footage, but as a short test, I’m pleased!  Though it could have been user error, I do wish that autofocus during video was a little snappier!

In collaboration with Magic Is Photo Safaris, I escorted a small group of wildlife photographers for a Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan in search of Japanese Snow Monkeys, Red Crowned Crane, Swan, Steller’s Sea Eagles and whatever else we could find!  To see more photos from our photo safari in Japan, view the 2017 Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan Trip Report.

2017 Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan | Snow Monkey Business

Mar 13 | Evan | No Comments |

Spending three days with the Japanese Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani in Nagano, Japan was a great experience.  We arrived just after a significant snow storm so there was plenty of fresh snow.  We had mostly overcast weather and though we had a few short snow flurries, kind of wished we had a little more snow while we were photographing. No matter the weather, the monkeys provided ample photographic opportunities and everyone loved even just observing them.  I already shared some portraits of the monkeys but just wanted to share a few more photos of the monkeys being, well, monkeys!  I have 3 stories which I found to be quite interesting and make me think that perhaps I look more like a monkey than the average person!  

To be honest, the photo above isn’t the monkey trying to give me a hint that he doesn’t want his portrait taken, but actually it’s the other monkey’s hand while grooming.  In any case, like I said, plenty of photographic opportunities at the snow monkey park!  Anyway, the first story happened on the first day we were with the monkeys.  There were many snow monkeys enjoying a hot bath when suddenly the alpha male jumped in and scared most of the monkeys away.  One monkey was about to run past me when he suddenly stopped and grabbed onto my jacket.  Of course I’m not expert but he held onto me for about 30 seconds and really felt like he thought I could protect him.  Really was quite interesting!

The second and third story happened the second day we were with the monkeys.  Earlier in the day I was leaning over on the rail of a bridge (you can see it in the photograph below and also same place as third story) with one eye looking through the camera and another closed as is the usual photographer’s style.  Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder and then a gently push to get me to move away from the railing.  I was already saying excuse me in Japanese on my way up and to my surprise it was an adult monkey that I had inconvenienced, not a person!  It’s hard to explain, but the way he pushed me certainly felt like a human.  I’ve saved the best story for last and I owe a HUGE thank you to Jennette Russell who was able to capture this moment in time for me and generous enough to share her photos with me.  All photos below until after the waterfall photo were created by, courtesy of and © Jennette Russell.

Literally minutes before leaving and on the way out, I suddenly felt a little extra weight on me and quickly realized that I had a monkey on my back!  Yes, that’s me in the blue jacket!  It was feeding time at the park and there was a lot of activity all around but from the railing to my back was an easy jump for this monkey.  After pulling my hair for a little he moved to my head and tried to open my backpack before going back to pulling my hair again!  It was quite the surreal moment that lasted probably all of 20 seconds but felt much longer!  I was so surprised and unsure of what I could do, I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to turn around to Jennette for what would have been a great portrait of myself with the monkey and also should have asked the shocked family next to me if they had some good ones to share, but at least Jennette got these awesome shots!

It wasn’t painful at all and glad he couldn’t figure out how to open my bag but needless to say, the first thing I did when returning back to the ryokan was take a shower and washed my hair a few times! Here is the entire series if you want to see what the monkey was up to!

Finally, I also wanted to share one more photo that I couldn’t have made handheld without my new Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II, another photograph of monkeys with the waterfall in the background, also at 1/20th of a second.  The image stabilization is really impressive!

In collaboration with Magic Is Photo Safaris, I escorted a small group of wildlife photographers for a Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan in search of Japanese Snow Monkeys, Red Crowned Crane, Swan, Steller’s Sea Eagles and whatever else we could find! To see more photos from our photo safari in Japan, view the 2017 Winter Wildlife Tour of Japan Trip Report.

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