Seeing the Snow Monkeys of Japan: A Magical Winter Journey

When you picture of travelling to Japan, its winter landscape is something that doesn’t often come to mind. Autumn foliage - sure, the dawn of spring with cherry blossoms - most definitely, and for most travellers, humid summer days exploring the country. But in the winter - the months from December until the very beginning of March, simply don’t whisper like most people think it does, but in Japan, it transforms into a daring wonderland. During these darker (yet shimmering) months, there is no better way to experience it than by embarking on a pilgrimage to witness the famous snow monkeys of the Jigokudani Monkey Park. Nestled in the heart of Nagano Prefecture, this unique wildlife sanctuary offers a rare opportunity to observe Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys, as they soak in natural hot springs against a backdrop of pristine snow-covered forests. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and Youtube for more adventures!

©Unsplash/ Rogério Toledo

There is simply no scene like it - where ancient forests wear thick blankets of snow, and steaming hot springs are the warm, inviting havens that beckon both humans and primates alike. As the cold wind rustles through the branches, a group of snow-covered macaques finds refuge in the soothing waters. Here, amid the backdrop of pristine wilderness, I had the chance to witness nature's ingenious adaptation - a true marvel that unfolds before anyone’s eyes. From the moment you step onto the Shinkansen, Japan's famed bullet train, to your arrival in the charming town of Yudanaka, this adventure promises awe-inspiring moments at every turn. Prepare to be enchanted by the journey from Nagano to Yudanaka, where snow-draped mountains and evergreen forests create a surreal backdrop. Then, as you tread the well-worn trail to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, the anticipation builds, leading to an encounter that will stay etched in your memory of what a true Japanese winter adventure is.

As you stand amidst the snowflakes, you will be able to watch the snow monkeys - a resilient species unique to Japan - relaxing in their natural hot spring baths. Their steamy haven becomes a sanctuary from the frigid weather, an oasis of warmth and comfort. When I was here, I was simply captivated by their playful interactions, the wisdom in their eyes, and the elegance of their movements. This journey is not just about observing wildlife; it is about connecting with the raw, unspoiled beauty of nature in one of its most magical forms. It is a chance to gain insight into the balance of life and survival in the harshest of seasons. It is a testament to the enduring spirit of these creatures and their unwavering adaptation to their surroundings.

©Unsplash/ shinonk

Not many people know that Japanese macaques are native to Japan and are the only species of monkey that is found in the country. They are known to inhabit various regions across Japan, including mountainous and forested areas. Their range extends from the northernmost parts of Japan's main islands, Hokkaido, and Honshu, to the southern island of Kyushu. Japanese macaques are particularly renowned for their adaptation to cold climates. They are often referred to as "snow monkeys" because they are known to live in areas with heavy snowfall during the winter months. 

To stay warm, they have developed a thick fur coat and a unique behaviour of soaking in natural hot springs (hey, something I love doing too - perhaps we are distant relatives after all). This is one of the most famous behaviours associated with snow monkeys. In the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano Prefecture, a group of macaques has become famous for their daily visits to a natural hot spring to warm themselves. This behaviour is not only an example of their remarkable adaptation but also has become a famous attraction.

©Unsplash/ katsuma tanaka

What’s interesting about Japanese macaques, is how they are also highly social animals and live in organised hierarchies within their groups, known as troops. Troops can consist of several individuals and are led by an alpha male. These social structures help them cooperate in foraging for food and protecting against predators. With that, these Snow monkeys are omnivorous and have a varied diet. They feed on a wide range of foods, including fruits, leaves, seeds, insects, and small vertebrates. Their diet can vary with the seasons, making them adaptable to changing environmental conditions.

Now, thankfully, Japanese macaques are considered a species of "Least Concern" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Having said that, while they are not currently facing immediate threats, habitat destruction and fragmentation can pose challenges to their long-term survival. The good news is that Japanese macaques have a prominent place in Japanese culture and folklore - which adds to their mythos and beloved care of these primates. They are often depicted in traditional Japanese art and stories, and their unique behaviour in hot springs has made them a symbol of resilience and adaptability.

©Unsplash/ Rick Wallace

To see the famous snow monkeys of Japan, you will need to visit specific locations where they are known to live. The most popular and accessible location to observe snow monkeys is the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano Prefecture. 

Decide when you want to visit as the best time to see the snow monkeys in their hot spring baths is during the winter months, from December to March, when they are most active due to the cold weather. Nagano is a convenient base for visiting the Jigokudani Monkey Park. I live in Tokyo, so if you are also coming from Japan’s capital city - you can take the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station. The journey takes around 1.5 to 2.5 hours, depending on the train you choose. From Nagano Station, you will need to take a local train and a bus to reach the Jigokudani Monkey Park. The park is located in the town of Yamanouchi, which is about 40 minutes from Nagano Station.

Disembark at Yudanaka Station, which is the nearest station to the monkey park. From Yudanaka Station, you can take a bus or a taxi to the Jigokudani Monkey Park. The bus ride takes approximately 15-20 minutes. Then for the final leg, the Jigokudani Monkey Park is located in the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park. The park entrance is a short walk from the bus stop. Be sure to budget in the admission fee to enter the park, which helps support the conservation efforts for the snow monkeys. Like all parks in Japan, it has a well-maintained trail, leading to the hot spring where the monkeys bathe. You can observe them from a safe and designated viewing area.

©Unsplash/ Andrea Esme

I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did! You can take your time observing the snow monkeys in their natural habitat. A key tip: They are usually most active in the morning and late afternoon. In any excitement, make sure you are respectful and maintain a safe distance from the monkeys. Do not attempt to touch or feed them, as it's essential to protect both the monkeys and visitors so more generations can enjoy them! I always like to pair my trip with a stay at a ryokan and submerge myself in an onsen afterwards. Hey, monkey see - monkey do! This is your invitation to chase the snow monkey magic will warm your heart long after the snow has melted.

©Unsplash/ Shino

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