16 Oct 2015

Back to Japan - Day 7: The Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani

I'd first seen pictures of the monkeys a few years ago - they were quite striking: bathing in the hot springs, flakes of snow glistening on their fur, steam rising around them, looking quite serene (and very human). When we decided to go back to Japan earlier this summer I had a Google to see if it might be feasible to visit them in this warm, rainy season. I had previously had no idea where abouts they were, and discovered that while it was a bit of an effort to get there, in the mountains up from Nagano (part of the Japanese Alps), it was actually quite possible. I also found out that they were there all year round, because the park rangers continue to feed them, summer or winter (and they add cold water to the spring so it's not too hot!).

We set off early, in a light drizzle, catching the first bus to the park from the station at Yudanaka, a stone's throw from our ryokan; we wanted to be there by the time the park opened at 8.30am. The bus trundled slowly up the hill, through the Shibu-Kanbayashi onsen area, before pulling in to a car park from where we had to walk a little way. There was a small uphill bit to start followed by a pretty flat path through trees to reach the park entrance; information about the park and the macaques lined the route. Mist clung to the trees and hills in the distance and it drizzled slightly, but the trees kept most of the rain at bay.

After half an hour or so of easy walking we arrived at the entrance, where we paid a small fee. From there it was a short walk to the monkey park, set along a river valley, surrounded by densely wooded hillsides, which were obscured by mist and low cloud. We saw our first monkey perched precariously on a log, bundled up in a ball, clutching a baby. The monkey's hair was frizzy from the drizzle.

We wandered down across the bridge to the hot spring, which was a lot smaller than I'd expected, as well as a lot more man-made. There weren't many monkeys around, just a few huddled together, still snoozing, looking quite adorable.

Soon the ranger appeared and scattered some grain from a bucket; that brought the macaques out immediately. Suddenly the place was overrun with monkeys of all ages, jumping around, picking up each piece of grain and popping it into their mouths, one-by-one. The ranger walked down along the riverside and the monkeys followed, trying to get as much of the grain as possible.

After a while it calmed down a little and then some monkeys went into the spring to relax. They looked as I'd imagined, but their fur glistened with drizzle instead of snowflakes. They looked very serene, thoughtful and human. They were very tame and seemed not to care at all about the photographers and tourists who were now milling around them. We were able to get very close and they just moved around us as if we weren't there.

From time to time there would be a squabble and one monkey would try to bite another, with loud screeches echoing around the valley. One of the fighters would give in and run away, so the fights never lasted very long.

There were lots of newborn babies around, mostly clutching desperately to their mothers' teats, which stretched with them as they moved.

There were also quite a few juveniles. A few of them decided to play around in the spring, with one of them seeming to take utter delight in jumping in, splashing the others, then getting out again and dive-bombing the others again, before trying to dunk them under. Others climbed delicately off the wall and stepped into the spring. The water seemed to sting their eyes, but they kept going back in for more.

There was a lot of picking and preening going on too, both inside and out of the spring, although the edge of the spring seemed to be the favourite spot of most of the macaques - having a nice hot bath while someone else had a good pick and got rid of all the bugs.

After an hour and a half the hubby had got bored, so he decided to get the bus back to the ryokan, leaving me to spend a couple more hours photographing the monkeys. I was glad to stay - I could've stayed there for days! I found the games and fights and grooming all fascinating. Some of the monkeys were quite distinctive-looking and different from the others. I watched babies cling to their mothers' backs as she took a dip; the babies struggled to keep their heads above the water, but the mother didn't seem to care.

Eventually I tore myself away, feeling a little cold, damp, dehydrated and monkeyed-out, haven't spent at least an hour watching one particular macaque. The place had got busier during the morning but the crowds drifted away towards lunchtime as the rain became more persistent.

I wandered back down the path and stopped along the way to take some photographs of the pretty trees, the mist still lingering in the distance. Most of the trees were dense fir trees, but occasionally the monotony of the forest would be broken up by a flash of new green deciduous leaves.

I checked my watch and realised that I was about to miss the bus - the next one was a couple of hours later and the walk back downhill into town would've taken quite a while - so I ended up running down the hill to the car park. I was also a little unsure exactly where the bus stop was, as there were two. Fortunately I just made the bus and was glad to get back to the dry of the ryokan. The rest of the day was a lazy one, spent looking through hundreds of pictures of monkeys (and the obligatory visit to the onsen downstairs). We went out in search of somewhere different for dinner and headed down some steep steps to a different part of the village. We found one place that was open and had a few bits and pieces, but it wasn't particularly great food. We had another early night before heading off the next morning on our journey to Tokyo. It was a time-consuming little detour but it was definitely worth the effort. 

Click here for blog on Day 6 - A Rainy Travel Day
Click here for blog on Day 8 - To Tokyo We Go!

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