We stayed in Nagano Prefecture the longest on D-travel Agency’s 2016 Fall tour to Japan. Our first night in Nagano was in Tsumago where we walked the down an ancient highway and then next we stayed two nights in Matsumoto before going up north of Japan to Yamanouchi for the Jigokudani Monkey Park. This post talks about our visit to the Monkey Park.
First, we learned that the word Jigokudani means “hell valley” in Japanese implies that there are steaming hot springs made from volcanic activity in the valley. In colder weather the steam from afar or even looking down from mountains that are a part of the valley becomes more visible to the eye. We also learned that are many Jigokudani throughout Japan though that Yamanouchi’s Jigokudani is special because it is the only place in the world where monkeys come to bathe in a hot spring. The monkeys are the Japanese Macaque and they’re also known as the snow monkeys. The macaque monkeys are seen in mountainous regions all over Japan but at the Yamanouchi Jigokudani, these macaques bathe in hot springs. Also, we can easily notice with all the billboard signs we passed on a bus ride to the park, that it is not only the monkeys that soak in the hot springs, many Japanese people come to Yamanouchi for the onsen that is hot springs spa bath for humans. There is a ryokan with an onsen for visitors in same monkey park and many more other onsen facilities and resorts in nearby towns of the same area. It’s funny to think that both monkey and human take pleasure in bathing in hot springs.
To get to the monkey park we go to the Kanbayashi Onsen, a picturesque resort lined up with some old houses, spa facilities, restaurants and Japanese inns and follow a trail through woodland. Before we started the trail stopped to get a quick lunch. While devouring our lunch, we studied the rest house that had lots of photos of monkeys on the wall and advertisement signs of apple foods including apple ice-cream. One member tried the apple ice cream and signed “CHAMP”. Some of us tasted it and confirmed it was good. But because we just filled our stomach with lunch we agreed that we would come back and treat ourselves to an apple ice cream cone.
We got on the trail and followed it all the way down to the park. The trail is 2 kilometers down and was rather flat than the Nakesendo trail. On our way down we watched for some monkeys and other animals to cross our path and we passed a few signs that educate us about the macaques. We learned that they are native to Japan and that that they’re the only non-human primitives that can endure the very cold weather. Also, the macaques usually live as a troop with a few males and mostly females with some that had their babies. The males within a group have a dominance hierarchy, with one male having alpha status. The females also exist in a stable dominance hierarchy, and a female’s rank depends on her mother. The females maintain both social relationships and hygiene through grooming. There were also signs that warn us not to feed, touch or stare at them for they’re wild.
The walk took us about 30 ~ 40 minutes to get to the gates of the park. Some members reached the park before sooner while others took a more leisure stroll taking their time and making pictures. Those who got to the park earlier said they saw an amazing show of monkeys called down for some foods. They described that it was a wave of monkeys swinging from trees and jumping down onto rocks that stuck out on the steep slope to ground level for the food nuggets that a park staff threw onto the ground. Those who were still walking said they noticed that some monkeys suddenly appeared on the trail passing them and running forward down. We had reached the site in time for treats from the monkey conservancy center at the park. It probably was lucky that we came at a good time because we were able to see so many monkeys at once and watch them in their social context, eating, grooming each other, fighting, bathing and even mating. It was amazing. Some of the macaques will let us get really close to them. It was the best opportunity for a great photo.
We also explored the park and the village that was next to the park. The village included no more than 10 buildings with a small shrine and a ryokan with onsen facilities. There was a bridge that allowed visitors from the side of the park to cross a small river to the village. We went over to the bridge where we could get a good view of the hot springs steam. The village ryokan was also interesting. It had an old appearance and was sort of romantic in a way. And while we were busy taking pictures, a naked human suddenly appeared right before us. The human came out from the ryokan and was totally naked, getting ready to dip into the onsen. When we saw this we double checked, tapping into each other’s arms, to make sure it wasn’t some tall macaque. Some of us responded “HOLD” and continued to stare at the naked human. Then we realized we were looking at a naked man. We couldn’t believe our eyes. One member who was busy taking pictures realized later that she had taken some photos of him. We could zoom up the photo and know that he surely was totally naked, not covering himself with a towel, his hands or anything in her photos. Surely everything was there. We don’t think the man ever recognized us. He never looked to the bridge where we were standing and taking pictures. He probably never knew that there were six Deaf American women tourists watching him. The whole scenario was funny and we had a very good laugh all the way through the woods and back to Kanbayashi Onsen for our apple ice-cream. And next was the ice-cream. It was a CHAMP and made the whole trip one of our most exciting adventures. Our visit to the monkey park shall be unforgettable.