If you are like me and have a fascination with monkeys, and don’t mind climbing snowy mountains, the Jigokudani Yaenkoen Snow Monkey Onsen in Nagano is the perfect adventure for you. It’s actually one of the most exciting things I’ve done in Japan so far.
Before going, I had a fairly good idea what the monkey park consisted of. However, I had no idea what the feeling of being so close to the interesting and very cute creatures would feel like. It was very surreal and exciting.
That day it was raining but we weren’t miserable, just anxious to go. The drive to Nagano from Takasaki was smooth, and the mountains gradually appeared more snow-covered and beautiful as we got closer to the park. When we got out of the car it was snowing, not raining anymore, which made me even happier.
At the foot of the park there was a really cute and funny sign. It read: “Traditional Japanese Inn for Human Being” with an arrow pointing left, and “Monkey park for Monkey” with an arrow pointing right!
Walking up the mountain made me feel a little bit uneasy. It was very slippery and the path was very close to the edge. When I looked down, I was feeling dizzy and a little bit sick from climbing so high, aware of the treacherous drop beside me! But the nature around was breathtaking and being surrounded by snowy trees was familiar to me. It made me feel like I was back in Canada for a moment.
At the onsen I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. An indescribable, adrenaline rush overwhelmed me. I felt amazed and happy but I was careful not to stare the monkeys in the eyes. They occupied a small territory, walking through the fluffy snow in between many tourists.
The monkeys were so cute and quite relaxed despite all the tourists. I was very surprised to see many of them falling asleep in the onsen even though there were numerous cameras in their faces, and the commotion of humans talking all around them.
Their lean bodies plunged into the onsen gracefully, and many of them groomed one another in a very loving and extremely affectionate manner as though no one was watching. I watched in amazement as one of the monkeys climbed a very high tree. His grip was uncanny. I had only seen monkeys from a distance at the zoo, so it was difficult to see how wild and cute they really are. But in Nagago, I got to be less than a foot from them for nearly an hour.
I met a very kind professional photographer at the onsen who gave me titbits about the behavior of monkeys. The precious little creatures were constantly searching through the snow with their paws. He told me that the monkeys were searching for rice which they are fed. They are very intelligent, the most human-like creatures on the planet. It seems as though their ability to understand the world around them is heightened compared to other animals.
It was nice to see the monkeys in the onsen but seeing them in their natural environment was equally as interesting. I went down a slope to see some near the rocks below. I stared a monkey in the eyes accidentally and he looked like he might attack me, making a screeching sound. It’s amazing how much control the monkeys have in their natural environment. Even though humans are larger than them, they seem to be fearless.
The cutest monkeys were running down the snowy hill. Something about seeing them in the snow made them appear even more adorable. I watched as one of the monkeys rolled a snowball and was chewing on it. It was one of the cutest things I have ever seen. There was a mother with her baby on one of the rocks that sticks in my mind.
After the park, we had a nice lunch at one of the shopping centers in Nagano. We talked about many things, but mostly the monkey onsen. I bought some postcards that I will send to friends and family back home in Canada, and two monkey magnets to remind me of the journey!
I feel a lot closer with many fellow ALTs after going to the monkey onsen. Building friendships and being up close and personal with monkeys was exciting. It was a fantastic, unique and extremely surreal experience.
If you get a chance, join the next GAJET snow monkey event. I can promise you that you won’t regret it!