The name Jigokudani, meaning “Hell’s Valley” it is due to the steam and boiling water that bubbles out of small crevices in the frozen ground. It is surrounded by steep cliffs and dense forest. Jigokudani is very nearly as far north as it gets for the snow monkeys. It is around -10 degrees in the winter and snow covers the ground for four months of the year.
A little backstory; Back in the late 50’ early 60’s a traditional Japanese guesthouse named Korakukan had an onsen (natural hot spring). It was the only guesthouse in the Jigokudani area. The monkeys would watch humans soaking in the hot spring and soon they copied the behaviour themselves. They became the only monkeys in the world to enjoy bathing in onsens.
Seeing bathing monkeys immediately proved popular with visitors, but there were serious repercussions for the guesthouse, obviously the hygiene of the onsen water. The monkey park had to be moved and baths were created in the park just for the monkeys, using the local hot spring source. Originally fencing was used to keep the monkeys away from the human villages. But the cost and allowing the monkeys to have their freedom won the day.
So, the daily practice of feeding the monkeys began. This was to encourage them to stay in the park rather than head down to the villages below.
On my trip there I was up at 04:00am, got the train to Tokyo, then I got the bullet train to Nagano and had time to kill before getting another train named “snow monkey express” this was a short pleasant trip through the wilderness of Nagano before arriving at Yudanaka Stn. There I was greeted by the hotel I was staying at and they drove me to the hotel which is literally at start of the walk to the mountains.
There is a gift shop just before the real walk begins and they sell all kinds of things as well as climbing boots etc for those who didn’t pack correctly!
After a quite scary 40-minute walk through the mountains I reached the park, paid my entrance fee and was greeted by a baby monkey who followed me around for about 20 minutes.
Watching the snow monkeys bathe in the onsen was a magical experience for me. Firstly, I love snow monkeys and secondly as a photographer it was amazing to see them in the wild and especially bathing in the onsen. Here are a few of my shots for you to look at.
Things to keep in mind:
Snow monkeys will usually only bathe in the onsen during the very cold season. This can be from December to late February. The best time to go is January to February though. I found during the week is also best if you want to avoid the huge crowds.
I read about people being disappointed that there was no snow and looked like a construction site… well firstly you should check the weather and secondly yes, it is very rocky hence being in the wild. There are fences built into the rocks which is for the safety of the monkeys and nothing else. Also, there are pipes which bring the onsen water to the bathing area. The monkeys enjoy these pipes as they are of course very warm for them to enjoy laying on.
Something I learned when I was there, was that Australia have their holiday around late January, so check for that as well if you really want to avoid the crowds.
Opening and closing times
Winter (around November to around March)
Opening time around 9:00 Closing time around 16:00
Summer (around April to around October)
Opening time around 8:30 Closing time around 17:00
These are a few rules I will mention.
If you have a disability and need an assist dog, the dog is still not allowed to enter.
Do not feed the monkeys
Do not open plastic bags as the monkeys will automatically think its food and may jump into it.
NO smoking in the whole area except for one tiny square seating area at the entrance to the park.
NO food or drink is for sale there
NO selfie sticks (awesome)
You cannot use a wheelchair
You cannot enter drunk
Do not touch the monkeys
How to get there:
From the Kanto area
Tokyo Hokuriku Shinkansen (through Nagano Station) / Kagayaki / Hakutaka / Asama / Fastest 79 minutes Nagano Station Nagano Electric Railway Limited Express / 38 minutes Yudanaka Bus / 15 minutes Kamibayashi hot spring bus stop Walking / 35 minutes Jigokudani Monkey Park
Tokyo Hokuriku Shinkansen (through Nagano Station) / Kagayaki / Hakutaka / Asama / Fastest 79 minutes Nagano Station Shiga Kogen express bus (※) / 41 minutes Snow Monkey Park Walking / 35 minutes Jigokudani Monkey Park
(Please visit the official website for all details and access information)
It is quite an amazing place to visit and I go there every year. It is open all year round with no closing days except for extreme weather conditions. The monkeys are very relaxed in their natural environment and I saw next to no fighting. As a zoo photographer it did make me feel a lot more for the animals at the zoo, as I witnessed such a huge difference.