Snow monkeys! I’ve been waiting to see them for the whole 3.75 years I’ve been in Japan. It was worth the wait.
The “snow monkeys” are actually Japanese Macaque, famous for spending a good amount of their spare time in natural hot springs. I believe there is a statutory requirement that any traveloge about Japan feature them, so likely you know what I’m talking about. Interestingly, ask Japanese people about them, and chances are they won’t have heard of them at all. For some reason, it’s chiefly foreigners who have this fascination.
The place to see these monkeys is Jikokutani (Hell Valley) in Nagano prefecture. It was a very cold day in Hell Valley indeed:
When you get through the entrance and into the park proper, you’re instantly in the thick of a troop of 200 monkeys. They live in a complex social hierarchy, having a strict pecking order…
Look, you can learn about how fascinating the Macaque monkeys are on Wikipedia. It really is a delight, though, to be able to walk right into the middle of their society and have them go about their business, seemingly oblivious to all the foreigners with DSLR camera roaming around. There are some highly complex simian interactions going on, obvious even to the least David Attenborough-like of us.
If you ever go there, some advice. The monkeys are wild, but co-exist with the gawking humans around them extremely well. They ignore you for the most part, but don’t make eye contact too much – they’ll start hissing and generally being grumpy. Strangely, they don’t seem to mind flashes. If I was aggressively strobed by amateur photographers while trying to take a bath, I know I’d be one angry monkey. I tried to refrain from using flash in the following photos.
The next photo is what happens if you’re standing next to someone getting a little closer than a monkey likes it. Not photographable: loud shrieking.
A highly recommended experience. The more snow, the more monkeys you’ll see in the hot spring, so time your trip well!