Jigokudani – Hanging Out With Monkeys In Japan

It was misty and cold that morning in the Japanese Alps, much like what I had anticipated.

As I parked the car at the start of the 1.5-kilometre long walking path that would lead me to the monkey-friendly onsen, I welcomed the leisurely trek with open arms, hoping it would settle the discomfort caused by an all-too-short night’s sleep on an unfamiliarly stiff tatami mat that left my body aching.

It was my last day in the otherwise rather unexciting Nagano prefecture and I longed for an epic experience that would be for the books. I kept what I believed what was going to be the best part for the end; these macaques would be the succulent dessert to the bland main dish that had been alpine Japan.

Monkeys In Japan
Monkeys In Japan
Monkeys In JapanMonkeys In Japan

The so-called Hell’s Valley turned out to be quite lovely, in fact. Scattered with natural hot springs, abrupt cliffs, and rugged forests, the trail indeed revitalised my body while my mind grew increasingly restless, wondering “if we were there yet” at every turn, eager to finally meet the legendary snow monkeys.

And, at last, I did.

Monkeys In JapanMonkeys In Japan Monkeys In Japan Monkeys In Japan

During my highly informative visit, I learned that Nihonzaru (Japanese monkeys in Japanese) live in a matrilineal society; females will typically stay in the same group for their entire life while males will be nomadic, leaving their natal family before they are sexually mature. The troops are highly hierarchic, and specific groups hold great authority over others, especially when it comes to the coveted alpha male position and the younger specimens.

The feminist in me was wooed by the fact that dominant females form an extremely strong bond over the years, sometimes even going as far as raising newborns that are not their own – the concept of monkey BFFs is kind of adorable.

Monkeys In JapanMonkeys In JapanMonkeys In Japan 18

I couldn’t believe how remarkably human-like the macaques were. I was mesmerised by their complex interactions and the oddly familiar shape of their hands – although I’m sure good ol’ Darwin would most definitely not think of it as ‘odd’. If the photo above isn’t proof enough that Homo Sapiens are direct descendants of chimpanzees, then I don’t know what is.

I stayed at the onsen for over an hour; my inclination to indulge my fascination for the animal reign could have very well persuaded me to stay longer if it wasn’t for the train I had to catch back to Tokyo. Rarely have I been so enthralled by a tourist attraction; perhaps it was because of their mindbogglingly relatable features, which made it physically difficult for me to move and focus on anything besides their expressive eyes, their willowy fingers, their meaningful cries.

These monkeys will forever hold a special place in my heart ♥

Monkeys In Japan
Monkeys In Japan
 Monkeys In Japan

Monkeys In Japan & Jigokudani: Good To Know

  • This is not a zoo. I am firmly against animal exploitation of any form, and this park didn’t feel like a tourist trap whatsoever. As you can see, monkeys are free to wander around as they please and they seem far more curious about than frightened by human presence. There is only one warden on site, and he only intervenes (by shouting keywords) when monkeys jump on visitors or try to steal something from their pockets. Animal rights are something I hold very dear to my heart, and I didn’t feel like I was encouraging any kind of detrimental industry by visiting Jigokudani.
  • Do you need a car to get there? No, you don’t. If you’d rather travel by rail (which I highly recommend you do, as car rentals in Japan are very expensive), get off at either Yudanaka, Nagano or Shibu and take the bus to Kanbayashi Onsen. From there, it’s a 35-minute walk through the bucolic alpine forest.
  • Do not talk to or stare at the macaques. They might look almost human, but they are wild animals and might perceive your curious gesture as a sign of aggression. Also, don’t EVER feed them.
  • Entry at Jigokudani costs 500 yen (roughly $5).
  • I stayed at ryokan Yudanaka Seifuso. If you don’t have a car, the owners will take you to the monkey park’s parking lot.
  • The park is located two kilometers from the parking lot, so you’ll need to walk a bit to get there. It’s actually a good thing as the scenery is stunning. Make sure you wear closed-off and waterproof shoes, as the trail can get quite muddy.
  • If you can’t make it all the way to the Nagano prefecture, there is a similar albeit much less picturesque monkey park in Arashiyama, just outside of Kyoto.

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21 Comments on Jigokudani – Hanging Out With Monkeys In Japan

  1. Kirsten
    February 10, 2016 at 10:47 am (3 years ago)

    The last picture is SO cute!! Actually all the monkey photos are so cute. And I’d love to see the area entirely covered in snow, I bet it would be so beautiful.

    • Marie-Eve
      February 10, 2016 at 11:54 am (3 years ago)

      Thank you Kirsten! Glad you like the photos. I really want to go back in the winter too!

  2. Brianna
    February 10, 2016 at 11:49 am (3 years ago)

    Wow. The photo of the monkey’s hand was really cool to see. I was not expecting the fingernails! I’m surprised people were able to get so close to them as well. I feel like they would be territorial in the water. Though, I guess they’re probably used to humans by now.

    • Marie-Eve
      February 10, 2016 at 11:55 am (3 years ago)

      They really aren’t! You can’t get like in their face or anything, but you can get watch from a few feet. They are used to humans and don’t mind the attention.

  3. Mary @ Green Global Travel
    February 17, 2016 at 8:55 pm (3 years ago)

    Agreed, it’s crazy how alike we are to these animals! The similarities really are fascinating.

    • Marie-Eve
      February 29, 2016 at 8:43 am (3 years ago)

      Indeed they are! Darwin would be proud.

  4. Nawwal Dada
    April 22, 2016 at 7:27 am (3 years ago)

    These pictures are so beautiful. Wow how cute are these monkeys. Thank you for all the information you provided. :)

    • Marie-Eve
      April 25, 2016 at 12:50 pm (3 years ago)

      Thanks Nawwal!

  5. Whitney
    April 25, 2016 at 12:47 am (3 years ago)

    Possibly a silly question- but what time of year was this? Am in the early stages of planning my very first trip to Japan and this is hands down a must on my list!

    • Marie-Eve
      April 25, 2016 at 12:40 pm (3 years ago)

      It was in early April!

  6. Mercedes
    May 27, 2016 at 7:25 am (3 years ago)

    Side note: Humans are not “direct descendants” of Chimpanzees… The lines split only a few million years ago, and their line split again into Chimpanzees and Bonobos. We’re very closely related, but not descendants. The macaques are actually fairly far removed. They’re monkeys and we’re apes, they’re Asian and we’re descended from Africa. All that being said, we are very similar in many ways; makes all that human-racism stuff seem so much stupider when you think how closely we resemble completely different families of simians, let alone different races of the same species! And looking into their soulful eyes, it blows my mind that anyone can think humans are in any way special.

    • Marie-Eve
      May 30, 2016 at 8:55 am (3 years ago)

      Good to know, thanks!

      • Anne
        May 22, 2018 at 12:16 am (9 months ago)

        I second that, it’s one of the biggest misconceptions about evolution that we always tried to explain when I was a TA in grad school. It’s exactly as Mercedes said, we simply shared a common ancestor with chimps and bonobos that split and then further changed over time to result in the species you see today. I agree about how similar we can look and act to a lot of primates, certainly shows how similar we are!

  7. Jonah
    September 16, 2016 at 2:29 am (2 years ago)

    Your photos are lovely! I love the details. What camera did you use? Were you close to the monkeys when you took the photo or you just used a zoom lense? :)

    • Marie-Eve
      September 19, 2016 at 6:40 pm (2 years ago)

      Thanks Jonah!
      I used the Olympus OMD EM-10 with the 25mm lens.

  8. Nathan Scheer
    December 17, 2017 at 2:38 pm (1 year ago)

    I live in Kyushu.. will be for a couple years, but I’d love to finally get some time to go visit these guys ^_^

    • Marie-Eve
      February 19, 2018 at 10:51 pm (12 months ago)

      You should! They’re pretty cool :)

  9. Misty
    April 13, 2018 at 2:09 pm (10 months ago)

    Hi, I will be visiting Japan in the next few weeks and was wondering what would be a good time to head over to visit the monkeys? I will be traveling from Shibuya Tokyo. Is there a time where they close off the site to visitors?

    Thank you!

    • Marie-Eve
      April 14, 2018 at 10:23 am (10 months ago)

      If you want to see them with snow in the background, late April is the absolute latest you can go. The site doesn’t close off but it’s not snowy in summertime.

  10. Eve
    May 5, 2018 at 4:12 pm (10 months ago)

    Thank you for your descriptive itinerary and beautiful photos. I, too am a huge animal rights supporter and animal lover. I wonder if you visited cat or rabbit island and what your thoughts were from the animal rights perspective.

  11. Linda
    January 21, 2019 at 2:29 pm (4 weeks ago)

    We are going to be in Tokyo in mid May of this year (2019). We had thought of going to seee the monkeys, but because it wasn’t during the winter people said that the monkeys may not be there. Is it worth it to go with the risk of possibly not seeing one? It is going to be a full day out of our itinerary and it is the only free day we have in Tokyo as we meet up with an organized tour the next day.


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