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Jigokudani Monkey Park, Japan


pault

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My wife and I visited Jigokudani Monkey Park in early December 2019. It was a very nice experience, but we knew what to expect so the negatives didn't affect us, especially as the park infrastructure was still being repaired after Typhoon Hagibis hit, causing significant damage. Warning: Although the monkeys are wild and native they are fed and always have been - it seems the feeding may have predated the hot spring bathing in at least in this particular spot - and the staff try to prevent them from leaving (at least with food, which is quite enough in winter I am sure, and maybe herding too in times where the monkeys are less likely to want to hag around the spring, but I did not see that).

 

You can get most relevant information in the report by @kittykat23uk "Japan in Winter". She is spot on with the info, but I'll add a little bit more.

 

We stayed in Shibu Onsen and arrived at the path to the park before opening time ( 9 a.m. in winter) so that we could be there as early as possible. This is absolutely essential I think, as by 10 a.m. a lot of people are arriving and it only gets worse after that; and this was low season just after the last of the autumn leaves were fading and falling in Kyoto (usually one of the last place to experience autumn, which had long since gone up north in Nagano) and before snow could be reliably expected on the ground. You really do want at least a little snow for this experience, and preferably a lot - failing that very cold weather. In warmer weather, and especially after rain, it would not be much fun at all, as it is hardly an idyllic spot compared to so many other places in the area, especially after Hagibis. Too crowded.

 

Anyway, so a 20 minute walk along a muddy path and you reach the ticket office and shop and so on, from where it is just a couple of minutes to the onsen that the monkeys visit. It was still very cold and cloudy up there so at least most of the little snow that had fallen had stuck and wasn't melting. The pool area is shaded by the tall trees in the morning anyway, but the snow would have melted from the hillside if the sun had has his hat on.  There was a digger still working on clearing damage from the typhoon, down in the valley slightly below the pool so that was a bit of a negative, but you soon got used to the sound and the monkeys didn't care, of course. The monkeys were in good form and had lots of youngsters, which is something to see. They look like made up cartoon characters and are seriously cute and funny. They love the pipes to the onsens (the others are for humans, although the monkeys have been known to use them too).

 

Kenny?

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The onsen is a little hot for most of them, but some sit on the stones in there or even have a quick dip. (In the onsen pics you'll see how the steam floats by in little clouds - sometimes clearly visible and sometimes just seen as a loss of sharpness and contrast in places. The trick is to watch carefully for this and time shots.

 

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After a dip they lose the teddy bear look....

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But the hot water makes it really easy to groom out the ticks and fleas.

 

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Of course any young monkey was cute with those furry parkas on, not just the babies. 

 

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Icy river below

 

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Edited by pault
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But of course the adults do the classic facial expressions and really get into the hot springs.

 

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The victim of bullying - nothing to do with me or other people.

 

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Edited by pault
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kittykat23uk

Not as much snow as when we were there 🌨️🐒

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Revelation

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The onsen and surroundings are reinforced with cement and some wiring to prevent rockfalls taking out tourists or destroying the onsen, and there are lots of people around by 10, but all the behaviour is pure and the area is relatively pure - ironically nearly all of the infrastructure belongs to the park, although there is a rickety old ryokan there too. So you can get some very nice nature shots if you can pump the ISO high enough.

 

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Part of the troop coming down the mountain.

 

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Ignore the fence..... haha

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Just imagine it is a fig vine. 

 

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Swimming monkeys is really nice and rather fascinating too, as the water is fairly clear.

 

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So if I were you I would stay nearby and not do it as a day tour, definitely try to do it in winter... January to early April is probably going to be best... and temper your expectations. Don't go all the way to japan for this, fascinating though it is, but if you are there already, it is worth a detour, not least because Nagano is a lovely area.

 

We stayed at Shibu Hotel, which is a ryokan with some modern touches to make things more comfortable, and really it is worth visiting just to stay here (or one of best of the even more - very -traditional ryokans in the same village of Shibu Onsen, if you prefer and want to go all-in). Brilliant place with fabulous hospitality. 

 

It is about 5 hours from Kyoto to here, with two changes, or 2-3 hours from Tokyo. 

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Atravelynn

The mist makes the photo in so many cases.  The monkeys do too, obviously.  How many hours or days did you spend with the monkeys? 

 

How did you get to Shibu Hotel from Kyoto?   How far in advance did you book Shibu Hotel, although I would think December is not the busiest time.

 

I remember @kittykat23uk's fascinating report also.

 

Thanks for this!

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@Atravelynn I spent less than 3 hours with the monkeys. It was very cold and the number of people kept increasing as day trippers arrived from as far away as Tokyo,. I would gladly have gone back if there was more snow on the ground.

 

Wherever you are coming from you either change trains in Tokyo or Nagoya (it makes surprisingly little difference due to the speed of the bullet trains) for Nagano and there change for the local express to Yamanouchi. The hotel will pick you up there or you can take a taxi )long walk), It is a long way to drive in a day from Kyoto, although Tokyo is quite doable. Some Yamanouchi folks work in Tokyo and drive home (more likely train) at the weekend. You cannot stay in Nagano and get there for opening unless driving.

 

Yes, Shibu hotel was not full when we were there. It has quite a few rooms so is easier to book than some of the very traditional  ryokans (which generally only have Japanese websites anyway) that can fill up a long time I advance - some were full even low season. Still, for peak winter season to get one of the bigger rooms (not an issue for a single traveller) I’d book many months ahead.

 

The ryokan in the park seems to book out a long time ahead, even though it is very basic and you have to carry your suitcase quite a long way through the snow to get there. I think the typhoon may well have closed it as we could not get a booking months ahead in low season and it seemed very quiet. They don’t exactly have a social media presence to confirm that - at least not in English. But in the end that was good as Shibu Hotel was so nice and being stuck out in the park might not have been as wonderful as I thought.

 

i mentioned Jo’s report because it’s a good primer for anyone - other things you can combine with the monkeys to make it a nice wildlife trip in winter - although I think doing Japan for wildlife only is like doing Italy for wildlife only. 

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shazdwn

Thanks for your report @pault.  I have seen fascinating images of these monkeys before but had never really thought about or researched the environment.  It's a bit disappointing to see how contrived it all is - ahh but that's the world we live in isn't it.  

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3 hours ago, shazdwn said:

Thanks for your report @pault.  I have seen fascinating images of these monkeys before but had never really thought about or researched the environment.  It's a bit disappointing to see how contrived it all is - ahh but that's the world we live in isn't it.  

 

Well it is and it isn't contrived, I would say. You'll get over the disappointment quickly if you go - as I have prepared you for it. ;) Here is another perspective, and keep in mind always that they are the most northerly primates in the world (bar us) and they used to be even higher in the mountains, so they are a bit special.

 

The story as told by the park and its advocates... summarized.

 

The park was founded by  a man called Sogo Hara, a railway employee who discovered the original troop while trekking through the area known as Jigokudani, or the “Valley of Hell”, in 1957 so called because of the smell of Sulphur from the natural springs.

 

Due to encroachment on habitat and deforestation caused by farming and (especially) ski resorts and ski runs, the monkeys moved down the mountains and, causing numbers in the valley to increase and bringing them closer to inhabited areas. This brought them into conflict with farmers and the monkeys were hunted.

 

That pushed Sogo Hara, who was by now gaga for them, to try to protect his beloved monkeys. They had by this time discovered Korokuan ryokan and its onsen, and seemed to copy the humans by getting into the hot water - something not seen before. Tomio Yamada soon first photographed this, and the legend was born. I suspect Sogo Hara was feeding the monkeys by this time but it couldn't have been much, so I don't think it is really significant. The ryokan was happy for the subsequent increase in visitors to see the monkeys but not so pleased with the monkey crap in the baths.

 

The feeding in earnest started to keep the monkeys away from conflict, as a fence was hardly practical. It was found that raw barley and soybeans with apples for snacks when food is plentiful was most effective in keeping the monkeys within the area, although quantities are limited so that the monkeys have to continue foraging for themselves too. The food is not supposed to be enough to survive on. The onsen was built to reduce monkey crap issues at the ryokan onsen.

 

So the monkeys are sort of paying for these arrangements, I guess. Without the park area and people discouraging them from heading in the wrong direction, they would have no place left and the northernmost primates would become a fast dwindling band of beggars and thieves. If you see monkeys being herded towards the food put out for them, keep in mind you don't know that they are being herded for you to see. Perhaps they are being herded away from a potential farm raid. Perhaps not - I obviously don't know.

Edited by pault
Lost a couple of facts in first edit -reinserted
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shazdwn

Thanks for the additional context, it’s an interesting story and an example of how complex human interactions and impacts can be. While I’m generally anti feeding wild animals, it is better than those animals ceasing to exist at all. 

 

Plus I guess I wouldn’t have wanted to bathe in monkey poo either.

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My wife insists I post this too.

 

“You don’t get photo- ops like this with your wildlife in Africa!“

 

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Soukous

Lovely photos @pault

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A really interesting report with some grat photos - thank you

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Atravelynn
On 1/27/2020 at 6:14 PM, pault said:

@Atravelynn I spent less than 3 hours with the monkeys. It was very cold and the number of people kept increasing as day trippers arrived from as far away as Tokyo,. I would gladly have gone back if there was more snow on the ground.

 

You made excellent use of your 180 minutes!  I also was surprised at the volume and quality of @kittykat23uk's snow monkey shots in a relatively short amount of time. 

 

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