Seeing the monkeys close, in total freedom, perhaps while they are enjoying the warm thermal waters of a Japanese onsen…. Is the reality of the Jigokudani park, also known as Snow Monkey Park, in Japan, precisely in the Nagano prefecture.
Totally one of the experiences to not to miss in Japan, I recommend visiting the Snow Monkey Park overnight in the Yamanouchi area, in Yudanaka or Shibu Onsen.
Jigokudani is a mountainous area in the Japanese Alps, and in its forest which is part of the Shigakogen Natural Park there are many Japanese macaques that often find themselves in the Yokoyu River area and immerse themselves in the natural onsen found in this hot spring area.
But not only the monkeys can enjoy the warm thermal waters of this area: the nearby towns of Yudanaka Onsen and Shibu Onsen allow you to stay in ryokans and immerse yourself in the warm thermal waters of Nagano prefecture.
Visit Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
Jigokudani Yankoen, better known as Snow Monkey Park is a natural park created in 1964 to manage the growing conflicts between the monkeys and the locals, as the totally free monkeys approached population centers too often. With the creation of this area and the artificial bath with thermal water, the monkeys prefer to stay here, in a safe environment without coming into conflict with the local population.
To get to the park entrance you need to take a path of about one and a half kilometers in the middle of the wood, a classic mountain path, where if you are lucky you can already meet some monkeys.
When you see a small house and the Jigokudani geyser (which blows constantly without ever stopping!) you will finally arrive at the park entrance, the entrance costs 800 Yen and there are also coin lockers for luggage storage.
In this area it is not possible to eat, because of course, the monkeys could attack you to get food!
Past the small entrance, you will immediately find yourself surrounded by a lot of cute monkeys: sleepy old ones, curious puppies, protective mothers, big, slightly threatening young ones… bring loaded cameras and indulge yourself!
But be careful to not touch the animals, they become aggressive if you get too close … maybe some curious puppy will come up to you and get on your arm resting on the fence, or stick to your skirt or try to steal your bag resting on the bench (really things happened to me), but let the monkeys “decide”, not you to impose your presence on them.
Best time to see the monkeys
I have been lucky enough to visit the Snow Monkey Park twice: in the summer of 2014 and in the winter of 2022. On both occasions, I found many monkeys, although I must say that soaking in hot water I found many more in summer!
The Jigokudani park in winter is certainly very impressive, with the white blanket of snow that covers the forest and the vicinity of the onsen. At the end of February, there is still a lot of snow and many monkeys chase each other on the snow or are dozing off enjoying the thermal heat, extremely photogenic even for photography enthusiasts.
Instead, visiting the Snow Monkey Park in the summer will give you the thrill of seeing many puppies, still very intrigued by the presence of humans, and who could get even closer to you and your bags… I also found the park less crowded in the summer.
Instead, I was told that in spring it is rare to find monkeys because it is the mating season and therefore the animals stay higher up in the mountains and in the forest. Even in autumn, it is rarer to see many of them because they are busy getting food supplies before the snow arrives.
How to get to Jigokudani
You arrive at the Yudanaka station terminal via a small railway that climbs up the mountains from Nagano… a slow, sleepy little train, in stark contrast to the fast Shinkansen. The Nagano-Yudanaka route costs 1400 yen (surcharge of 100 yen for the express) and is not included in the Japan Rail Pass.
Since you have to change trains in Nagano, I recommend taking the opportunity to visit the important Zenko-ji temple, one of the most important temples in Japan.
Frequent buses leave from Yudanaka station for 300 yen to the parking lot near Jigokudani park, but if you stay overnight in the area, check that your accommodation does not offer a shuttle service (often free) to/from the park.
From the parking lot, you walk into the Jigokudani forest for 1.6km, a pleasant and flat walk, suitable for everyone, cool in summer and covered with snow in winter (normal boots are enough, but it is still possible to rent snow boots for 500yen per day. Infopoint at the entrance to the route).
Stay in Yudanaka Onsen
Yudanaka is an onsen town and you will immediately notice it, near the station there is in fact the opportunity to try its warm waters, thanks to the free foot tubs and the numerous onsen in the area.
The inhabitants are very keen to make known the beauties of their country, and upon arrival at the station they will immediately give you a map indicating the main points of interest, unfortunately, we had tight times and the following morning we had to leave immediately for Matsumoto, but in the evening it was really pleasant to walk through the deserted alleys, among the Japanese-style wooden houses!
We spent the night in an adorable minshuku (basically the smallest, simple and family-run version of the Japanese ryokan), the Shimaya, where we were wonderfully welcomed by Mr. Yumoto and his wife.
I highly recommend this place, both for the location (near the station and a convenient store), and for the typical Japanese room with tatami mats, futon, tea table (and relative tea and sweet set), comfortable yukata and veranda. But also and above all for the kindness and courtesy of the owners: Mr. Yumoto will explain everything you want to know about the monkey park and Yudanaka, and also about other places in the area that you will visit. The wife, on the other hand, although she speaks less English, will be happy to give you suggestions on where to eat and she will tell you about particularities and curiosities.
You can choose whether to relax in the internal bathrooms or to have the private outdoor onsen reserved for you, a few meters from the ryokan, which will be all yours for about an hour. I recommend it, it’s small, but it overlooks a natural terrace and will give you a great sense of freedom and relaxation!
Stay at Shibu Onsen
Between Yudanaka Onsen and Jigokudani Park there is also the spa town of Shibu Onsen, with a history of 1400 years, where there are 9 public onsen with different thermal properties. Those staying at Shibu Onsen will be given a key that allows free access to the 9 onsen, while day tourists can only access one, the largest, by paying the 400yen ticket. I will talk about Shibu Onsen and its 9 public onsen in a dedicated article.
↓ Check out my YouTube video to see Snow Monkey Park in Winter ↓
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