Jigokudani Monkey Park

When a Japanese friend learned that I was planning a winter trip to see the snow monkeys north of Nagano, she told me she had always wanted to see the Hokusai museum in nearby Obuse, so, although she was not fond of cold weather, she agreed to accompany me for a few days. It was February of 2010, and the night before we were to leave, Tokyo had its only significant snowfall of the season. By morning about three or four inches graced the roofs, bushes, and streets outside my window. My friend called. Apparently outlying areas had heavier snow and the highway bus we were planning to take had been cancelled. In addition, many trains were delayed or stopped, and downed trees caused road obstructions. Our local line was running, so we connected to the Shinkansen, bullet train, more expensive but much faster, and sped north to the mountains.

Switching trains at Nagano, we stopped for a soba lunch, and then detoured to see the grand Zenkō-ji Buddhist Temple. Handmade straw sandals hung at the entrance, brought as offerings to the gods. Hoping for good luck, visitors had rubbed the statue of Binzuru, a follower of Buddha, so that it shone in places. Many pilgrims stumbled through a completely dark underground passage, groping along the walls for a hidden key of enlightenment. Although my friend claimed not to be a believer, she threw the obligatory coin into the box at the steps of the temple, rang the bell, and clapped, observing the ritual prayer.

“You never know,” she said with a sly smile.

Soba lunch
Zenkō-ji temple gate, Nagano, Japan
Tying prayers

The celebrated artist of the Edo period, Katsushika Hokusai created ukiyo-e, woodblock prints. His depictions of huge foamy blue waves tossing wooden boats, and of the dramatic, solitary Mount Fuji, serene or stormy, floating over villages, are recognized around the world. An extensive collection of originals were housed at the Hokusai Museum in Obuse, along with his paintings, scrolls, and sketches. We trudged through blowing snow to see his fiery orange phoenix on the ceiling at the Gansho-in Temple, painted while Hokusai was in his eighties.

View from Obuse
Lane to the museum
Gansho-in gate

Hokusai’s patron in Obuse owned a sake factory, which now houses the museum; a smaller brewery and restaurant run by the same family could now be found on the main road. We sat at the counter to watch blue-robed young men preparing the food, chopping quickly and precisely with big sharp knives and steaming rice over an old stone oven. Three different kinds of sake, including a thick, milky wine similar to Korean makgeolli, were brought to us to sample, each one better than the last.

Under the town of Yudanaka, which clung to a steep mountainside, the earth seemed to be smoldering, dotted with steaming hot springs. Our hotel had an underground passageway to several natural spas, so we could wear the robe-like yukata and slippers supplied in our room without stepping outside. As usual in Japan, men and women bathed separately, in the nude. Both before dinner and after, we soaked in hot pools in rock basins, with fresh water dribbling down rock walls, pouring in from the side, bubbling up from the bottom.

My friend declined to join me on my morning trek to see Jigokudani Yaen-koen, Hell’s Valley Monkey Park, one of the most famous attractions in all of Japan, preferring to relax in the hotel. She did not want to hike on the snowy trail. This was truly inconceivable to me; I could hardly contain my excitement! To each her own. I just hoped there would be a few monkeys around on this slightly warmer morning to make the journey worthwhile.

After a thirty-minute walk from the trailhead on a snow-packed path through dense forest to a cluster of old wooden buildings along a river, I was thrilled to encounter my first Macaque monkey, a large reddish-brown male strolling by me without a glance. The sign pointed up steep stairs to the park entrance. The Monkey Park follows the river up to a steamy natural pool.

On the trail to Jigokudani Monkey Park

Suddenly monkeys were everywhere: playful youngsters rolling and frolicking in the snow, chasing each other up the hillside, bouncing off rocks, my camera bag, and even my head. They were hanging off signs, lone monkeys digging in the snow for morsels of food, sitting on rocks in the river, mothers nursing babies. Across a rickety bridge, pensive-looking monkeys lounged in the pond, heads with disheveled hair floating above the surface, lost in meditation, reaching down now and then to pick up things to eat from below the surface. These wild creatures ignored the human gawkers, oblivious to the cameras, and avoided eye contact, as if we were just other grazing animals in the valley. How enchanting to be able to share their remote habitat, if only for an hour or so.

This piece is an excerpt from my book, Go Wherever You Want (working title).

Please do not download or reproduce images from this site. ©

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Published by rkrontheroad

Writer, photographer, traveler

47 thoughts on “Jigokudani Monkey Park

    1. It’s worth the trip, like a fantasy being there! I went again another time, although at a warmer time of year, I had to take my son when he came to visit. I was surprised the monkeys still frequent the bath and the area even when it’s not cold. Hope you get there! Thanks, Maggie.

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    1. The bamboo forest, kind of mystical place. We often don’t realize the treasures we have in our own backyard – I guess my friend didn’t think it was so special. Thanks for your comment, Jess.

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  1. What a wonderful trip, and equally wonderful read! Your descriptions of the journey, the food, the temple, the Hokusai museum are all entrancing, but of course the monkeys are the stars of the post. Like you I can’t imagine not wanting to go to see them!! I love all the photos, but the one with the spiky hair peering over a rock is especially captivating 🙂

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  2. You are one lucky lady, Ruth – what an experience! I can’t even pretend that I feel anything other than envy. 😊 The photographs are just perfect. I have always been curious about the Japanese monkeys with their spa. Maybe I will add Japan to the bucket list again…

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    1. It was a choice to go there, as with many things, I don’t consider it luck. 🙂 It was always someplace I wanted to get to when I got the job in Japan. It takes a few extra days to wander up north, so if you go, keep that in mind. Thanks for reading, Kerry!

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      1. You are right, Ruth, it wasn’t luck but an excellent choice. There is so much to admire about you and your life. My cousin traveled to Laos and Guatemala with the intention of teaching local people to use sewing machines to make their handicrafts more saleable. Travel with a purpose.

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  3. What a great trip and experience. I have only passed through Nagano and never stopped. Have to give it a look some time, not sure about a winter visit though. Thanks for sharing Ruth. Allan

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  4. Gosh, what a STUNNING day at Jigokudani! From the artfully-presented soba lunch to the crisp views of the snow-capped mountains, it looks like you had the perfect weather and food that day, along with plenty of adorable monkeys to boot! I’ve not been to that part of Japan yet, but your post has inspired me to return to the island country to check it out!

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    1. It was definitely worth the journey up north, each part special in its own way. I am reminded of the Paul Simon line about the zoo: “and the animals will love it if you do”, but I don’t think they cared. Thanks for your kind comment, Rebecca!

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  5. What an awesome trip! Your Soba lunch looks quite interesting … and how special to see these monkeys in their natural habitat! Can I just say ‘awww’ for that little one ☺️ – must have been a wonderful experience!

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  6. That it was. The Japanese are artful in their food presentations. I don’t usually take photos of food, but this one was so attractive, I almost hated to disturb it by eating! Thanks for taking the time to comment, Corna.

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  7. my what pensive looks they have, but those lovely fur coats must keep them warm! Sorry your friend missed such a treat! You either have an excellent memory or kept detailed notes to recall so much … thanks for sharing 🙂

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      1. good for you! It’s was my intention to but like most good intention it fell by the wayside! How lovely that you can share such travels now we are all house-bound! A delicious escape, especially with such detail and exotic pics, thanks Ruth 🙂

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  8. We visited Japan a few years ago, but unfortunately didn’t have enough time to go to Nagano. The landscape looks so pretty covered in snow. And how neat to see all those monkeys. I’m sure they were quite entertaining to watch.

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  9. What a wonderful excursion – all of it! I also do not understand your friend, and would have been as excited as you to get to the monkey park. It has long been on my radar. The rest of the journey sounds lovely too. And your photos are gorgeous.
    Alison

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