A trip to see the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park is a must-do for nature lovers.
In the northern reaches of Nagano prefecture is one of Japan’s most popular winter destinations, the mountainous municipality of Yamanouchi. Yamanouchi is famous on three counts: skiing, onsens and snow monkeys.
Skiers have known about this area for decades. Yamanouchi is home to world-renowned Shiga Kogen, one of Asia’s largest ski resorts. Shiga Kogen comprises 19 interconnected ski areas, 52 lifts, and 607 hectares of skiable terrain. In 1998, it hosted the slalom skiing events at the Nagano Winter Olympics, solidifying its status as a world-class snowsports facility.
But a journey to Shiga Kogen is incomplete without a side-trip to Yamanouchi’s famed Jigokudani Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen Kōen), home to the one of Japan’s largest populations of Japanese macaques (snow monkeys). This is the best spot in the country to view the monkeys in their natural habitat.
Quick facts about Japan’s snow monkeys
Name: Snow monkeys / Japanese macaques / Macaca fuscata
Where: Yamanouchi, Shimotakai District, Nagano prefecture
When: Open 365 days / year
Hours: 8:30am – 5pm (04-10) / 9:00am – 4pm (11-03)
Price: ¥800 (adults) / ¥400 (children)
Snow monkeys in Japan
The Japanese Macaque (snow monkey) is found on three of Japan’s four main islands: Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. But its largest population resides on the island of Yakushima, 60km off the south coast of Kyushu. Snow monkeys live further north than any other non-human primate. The monkeys can be found up to 500km north of Jigokudani Monkey Park, towards Honshu’s rugged north-eastern cape. Their thick fur is a unique adaptation to the alpine climate. Despite living in extreme conditions, snow monkeys do not hibernate.
Capable of an extraordinary range of facial expressions, snow monkeys are fascinating to photograph. Jigokudani Monkey Park draws shutter-happy tourists from all corners of the globe. But the monkeys and their antics make for more than just great Instagram fodder; they’ve been the subject of ample scientific research.
Scientists are continually amazed by the monkeys’ ability to to adapt to Japan’s ever-changing environment. Snow monkeys have developed behaviours that were once exclusive to humans. On Yaka-shima island, for example, the monkeys ride Sika deer in the same way that humans ride horses. This behaviour hasn’t been observed in any other population of snow monkeys. In Nagano, further north, the monkeys roll snow balls and bathe in steamy hot springs.
Unfortunately, the monkeys may also have inherited some of our more destructive tendencies. Snow monkeys have reportedly trashed shrines, broken into cars, and invaded homes. Worryingly, snow monkeys are becoming increasingly dependent on humans for food. This is particularly true in tourist areas such as Yamanouchi. As a result, the monkeys have taken to stealing food when it’s not otherwise available to them. In parts of Japan, mothers are afraid to send their children to school unaccompanied in fear that they might be accosted by the monkeys and raided for their lunches.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), snow monkeys are a ‘threatened species’. This is largely due to human cause. Urban development has posed a huge threat to the Japanese macaque’s habitat. Displaced monkeys have been forced to seek refuge elsewhere, often encroaching on farmland. Unfortunately, snow monkeys are seen as an agricultural pest and many have been killed off by farmers.
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
Jigokudani Monkey Park was established in 1964. It is located within Joshinetsu Kogen National Park in Yamanouchi, Nagano prefecture. Jigokudani translates to ‘Hell Valley’*, named in reference to the ominous white steam that emerges from Yamanouchi’s bubbling hot springs in winter. It is arguably the best place to view snow monkeys in Japan.
What to expect
The park is not a zoo; the snow monkeys are not restricted by any means. There are no bars or fences. The monkeys come to the park primarily for food. Park attendants provide them with a steady diet of fruit and grains. The park is open year-round, but a visit in winter is special. During this time, the monkeys use the park’s natural hot spring as refuge from the bitter cold.
Tourists can watch within close range as the snow monkeys go about daily business. In and around the onsen, you might see monkeys grooming each other, mothers nursing babies, alpha males tending to security, or youngsters rolling snowballs. But many of the troop simply want to bask in the steaming hot water. And who can blame them? Regardless of when you visit, you’re bound to witness something unique. The monkeys’ playful antics have endeared them to tourists who visit in the thousands every year.
The monkeys have become accustomed to human contact and generally don’t pay much attention to tourists. That said, any food that you bring within close reach of the monkeys is in danger of being swiped. It might also pay to keep close tabs on your valuables. in 2014, one of the park’s more daring inhabitants yanked an iPhone straight from the hands of an unsuspecting onlooker. Needless to say, the phone ended up at the bottom of Jigokudani’s bubbling hot spring. A quick Google image search reveals that this was not an isolated incident.
Access / Fees
Getting to the park requires a 1.6km (1 mile) hike off the main road. During winter, the trail is covered by snow and slush. Footwear with waterproofing and adquate traction will save you a lot of trouble. If you’re ill-prepared, Snow Monkey Resorts Info & Gift Shop has rental snow gear available. They are located immediately to the left of the trailhead.
The fee for entering the park is ¥800 (US$7) or ¥400 for children (US$3.50). A combined transport and admission pass can be purchased at Nagano Station (see below).
The park’s opening hours vary depending on the season. From April to October, the park is open from 8:30am to 5:00pm. From November to March, it’s open from 8:30am to 4:00pm. To avoid crowds, it’s best to visit during morning hours. Be warned though. Temperatures during winter can be uncomfortable (as low as -15°C). Dress appropriately.
*It’s worth noting that there are two places in Japan named ‘Jigokudani’, one in Nagano, the other on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. Jigokudani Monkey Park is located in Nagano prefecture on the island of Honshu. Do not go to Hokkaido by mistake!
Jigokudani Monkey park is located in one of Japan’s most revered winter destinations, the municipality of Yamanouchi in Nagano’s rugged north. The park lies within Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, a mountainous area that spans over 1800 square kilometres and occupies three different prefectures. At an elevation of 850 metres, the park sits in the Yokoyu river valley, nicknamed ‘Jigokudani’ or ‘Hell Valley’.
Within striking distance from the park is one of the country’s historic onsen streets as well as Japan’s second largest ski resort, Shiga Kogen.
Shiga Kogen Ski Resort
Shiga Kogen Ski Resort needs no introduction. The resort famously hosted the slalom skiing events at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. However, skiers and boarders have been flocking here for decades. The ski resort is made up of 19 adjoined ski areas equalling 607 hectares of pisted terrain. There’s a lot of ground to cover for skiers who enjoy mixing up the scenery. The Shiga Kogen highlands offer some of Japan’s most spectacular alpine views.
Shiga Kogen might suit those looking for a more authentic Japanese experience.
Shiga Kogen hasn’t seen as much development as neighbouring Hakuba Resort. Many see this as a blessing. The resort has managed to retain its rustic, small town atmosphere. Much less westernised than some of its competing resorts, Shiga Kogen might suit those looking for a more authentic Japanese experience. There’s little in the way of a European-style après ski scene, but visitors can find a bit of life at nearby Shibu Onsen.
Watching snow monkeys bathe in steaming hot baths might just compel you to do the same. Just a short drive from Jigokudani Monkey Park is Shibu Onsen, a favourite of tourists who come to bathe in steaming natural springs, don traditional yukata and geta (gown and clogs), and soak up views of the surrounding Shiga Kogen highlands. Interestingly, snow monkeys occasionally wander into the area looking for food.
Shibu Onsen has a long history, dating back over 1300 years. Its main cobblestone street runs parallel to the Yokoyugawa River and is now host to nine public baths or onsen. Each bath is said to have different medicinal effects. Those who visit all nine baths are promised “good fortune” and “perpetual youth and longevity”. The area is also known for its small selection of restaurants and cafes.
Yudanaka Onsen is another great option for those eyeing up a soak in one of Japan’s traditional bathhouses. Less popular than Shibu Onsen but with its own unique history, Yudanaka Onsen comprises nine hot springs and countless public foot baths. Yudanaka is famous for its sotoyu (outer baths) which are fantastic for taking in views of the surrounding mountains.
If a visit to the snow monkeys piques your interest in Japanese wildlife, note that Joshinetsu Kogen National Park is also home to the Japanese serow, a mountain-dwelling goat-antelope. Unfortunately, this rare mammal species is more difficult to come across. Back country skiers and boarders serve the best chance of spotting one. You are perhaps more likely to encounter an Asiatic black bear, particularly if you visit Yamanouchi in the summertime!
How to get to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
From Nagano Station (35km)
Snow Monkey 1-Day-Pass:
Trains in Japan are run by a combination of private companies. If you are travelling by shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo, you will arrive at the JR East section of Nagano Station. To purchase a Snow Monkey 1-Day Pass, you must make your way to the Nagano Electric Railway (known as ‘Nagaden’) section of the station. This section is located underground, beneath the JR platforms. Take the Zenkoji exit out of the JR East section. The staircase leading to the Nagaden Section will be on your right hand side.
The Snow Monkey 1-Day-Pass costs ¥2900 and gives you one day’s use of both Nagaden bus and train services plus entry to Jigokudani Monkey Park. It is highly recommended that you purchase this ticket.
The simplest way to reach Jigokudani Monkey Park from Nagano Station is via a Nagaden bus (‘Nagaden’, the company name, is written in big letters across the side of the bus). To access the Nagaden bus stop, take the East exit out of the JR East section of Nagano Station. Take the Nagaden bus bound for Shiga Kogen. It should depart from bus stop 3 or 4. Disembark at Kanbayashi Onsen Guchi station. Stops will be announced in both Japanese and English.
Once at Kanbayashi Onsen Guchi station, follow the (many) signs to the trailhead for Jigokudani Monkey Park.
Many of the hotels and ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) in the Yudanaka Shibu Onsen region offer a shuttle service from Yudanaka Station. If you’re planning on settling into your hotel room before heading to the monkey park, you’ll need to take a Nagaden limited express train to Yudanaka Station. This train departs from the underground section of Nagano Station. Local trains are more frequent but you will require a transfer at Shinshu-Nakano Station in order to reach Yudanaka.
From Tokyo (~270km)
Japan’s largest international airport is located in Narita, an hour outside of Tokyo. The Narita Express train is the easiest way to reach the capital from the airport.
If you arrive at Haneda International Airport (also in Tokyo), you’ll first need to take the monorail to Hamamatsucho station. From there, change onto the JR Yamanote Line (colored green on the JR rail map). Tokyo Station is only three stops away.
From Tokyo Station, take the Asama shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano Station via the Hokuriku Shinkansen line. The shinkansen is a high-speed luxury train that connects the four main islands of Japan. A one-way ticket from Tokyo to Nagano will cost roughly ¥8000 (US$70). The route is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass. If you are travelling on a Japan Rail Pass, you will also need to purchase a JR East Nagano Niigata Area Pass.
Once at Nagano, follow the directions posted above.
From Shiga Kogen Ski Resort (20-30km)
Shiga Kogen is a huge ski resort that encompasses 19 separate ski areas. You will need to take the Nagaden bus bound for Yudanaka. Ask your hotel where to find the bus stop that services this route. Disembark at Kanbayashi Onsen Guchi station and follow signs to the trailhead for Jigokudani Monkey Park.
Close to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
If easy access to Jigokudani Monkey Park is your main concern, Shibu Onsen is a great place to look for accommodation. There are countless ryokans, hotels and hostels scattered around town, many of which provide a shuttle service to the park. If not, it’s only a short 2km (1.25 miles) walk to the park’s trailhead.
Neighbouring Yudanaka Onsen also offers plenty in the way of accommodation. Located a stone’s throw from the train station, it has the added benefit of convenience. Alternatively, there is limited accommodation at nearby Kanbayashi Onsen which is even closer to the trailhead.
The newly renovated Koishiya Ryokan is a popular budget option for those wanting a traditional Japanese experience. Its owner and staff are known to be particularly helpful and accommodating. Koishiya even offers a free shuttle service to Jigokudani Monkey Park. The ryokan has its own café bar that serves espesso coffee, local wines ands western food. Koishiya’s guests are also provided free access to Yudanaka Onsen Yoroduya, a nearby ryokan that has its own onsen facilities.
Ryokan Biyunoyado was recently selected as one of the top 25 B&Bs and inns in Japan. The ryokan offers traditional Japanese room and board with an elegant modern twist. Located in a particularly tranquil spot, Biyunoyado offers kaiseki breakfasts and dinners, stunning views of the mountains, and luxurious indoor and open-air hot spring baths. The ryokan also provides free transportation to and from Yudanaka Station, Jigokudani Monkey Park and Shiga Kogen Ski Resort.
Just a few hundred metres from Jigokudani Monkey Park’s trailhead is Jinpyokaku Honten, a beautifully maintained onsen ryokan with a proud 100+ year history. The ryokan has attracted a number of esteemed guests including the emperor of Japan and novelist Soseki Natsume. Expect the elegance of a traditional washitsu (Japanese-style tatami room) combined with 5-star service and modern amenities. The ryokan has both indoor and outdoor baths. These are naturally heated and use non-recycled water.
If your main objective is to ski at Shiga Kogen, you have a few variables to consider: ski access, ski quality, transport and amenities. Yakebitaiyama is the largest individual ski area in Shiga Kogen, but those looking to go off-piste should head to Okushiga Kogen instead. Ichinose Village offers the most in the way of restaurants and bars. However, it might be worth trying somewhere a little off the beaten path if you’re looking for a more traditional Japanese experience. Each of Shiga Kogen’s 19 ski areas has its own unique appeal.
Prince Hotel in Yakebitaiyama is one of Shiga Kogen’s most popular hotels. The hotel offers ski-in-ski-out access to some of the resort’s best slopes. The hotel is split into three separate buildings, each of which has its own advantages. Views of the mountains are spectacular, particularly from the East Building. Unlike much of the accommodation in this part of the country, Prince Hotel is a western-style hotel with a range of facilities including massage salons, hot baths, karaoke rooms and a day nursery. Ski lessons, tours and rental can also be arranged from within the hotel.
With slope-side access to Okushiga Kogen ski resort, Hotel Grand Phenix offers luxury accommodation in one of Shiga Kogen’s hot spots. Guests can stay in one of the hotel’s spacious western-style suites or opt for a more traditional Japanese tatami room. The hotel is equipped with world class facilities including a heated indoor pool and European-style lounge. Particularly inspiring are the indoor communal baths which offer panoramic views of the slopes.
Yokoteyama / Kumanoyu:
Within walking distance of Shiga Kogen’s highest mountain, Shiga Palace Hotel offers prime access to some of the resort’s best skiing. The hotel itself is a charming mix of traditional Japanese sophistication and western comfort. After a taxing day’s skiing, guests can soak in the hotel’s lavish 100% natural indoor onsen, gorge on locally-sourced food, or watch a movie in the executive lounge.
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