Forty-five minutes from the mountainous city of Nagano, Japan, is a protected park that is generally shrouded in snow, and is always full of playful Japanese macaques who love nothing more than to participate in Japan’s onsen culture by taking a dip in the local hot springs.
One Of The Most Unique Parks In The World
Jigokudani Yaen-Koen is a sanctuary for these creatures. It’s part of their natural habitat complete with onsens -- or hot springs -- that are now just for the macaques. It sits in the heart of the Yokoyu River Valley and is considered a “hell valley” because of the volcanic activity that fuels the onsens and creates the unique topography that makes the park a natural wonder -- even without the monkeys.
Although nobody knows for certain why the macaques started taking advantage of the hot springs, recent research shows that they experience a very relatable benefit from their regular onsen visits. The hot springs have a substantial and positive effect on the stress levels of the bathing beauties, as well as presumably keeping them warm during the chilly winter months.
Some speculate that the monkeys learned about the joys of onsens by observing humans in the hot springs and decided to mimic them. In 1964, a hiking enthusiast created the park as a haven for them and soon tourists were flocking to Jigokudani Yaen-Koen to catch a glimpse of the macaques enjoying their onsen.
Visiting The Bathing Macaques
The closest airport to Nagano is Shinshu-Matsumoto Airport. Once you’re there, take a taxi to Matsumoto and a train to Nagano. From Nagano, you have a few options. Take a bus to the park, or the train to neighboring Yudanaka and a bus the rest of the way.
Tours of the park are available, and there is ample parking on site. Some lots are free, and others cost 500 yen (approximately $5). Hours vary by season, but the park is generally open between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Check their website for the most up-to-date information available.
There are advantages to visiting in both the winter and warmer months. During the winter, the macaques are more likely to take the edge off the chill by enjoying longer baths, so the probability of seeing them bathing is greater. During the summer months, it’s sunnier and easier to spot all of the animals. Of course, it’s also substantially warmer, so you’ll be more comfortable, too.
Plan to spend at least half the day in the park. You’ll pay 800 yen (approximately $8) for adults and 400 yen (approximately $4) for children to enter. Although the trek to the macaque onsens is not that steep, there are sections that are unpaved, and it might be difficult for those with mobility issues. Expect a 5- to 10-minute walk from the park entrance, wear comfortable shoes, and bring a light jacket, even during the summer months. It’s best to wear waterproof boots in the winter as you’ll be trekking through quite a bit of snow on your way to the baths.
Visiting the onsen-loving Japanese macaques might just be the highlight of your trip to Japan. Don’t miss it!