Vegetarian's Japan Guide

Jigokudani Monkey Park – Where Snow Monkeys Indulge in Onsen

Jigokudani Monkey Park, also known as the Jigokudani Yaen Kōen (地獄谷野猿公苑) in Nagano Prefecture, is the world’s only wild monkey onsen resort. The park, established in 1964, enables people to observe the snow monkeys’ ecology up close.

In 1970, the world found out about snow monkeys enjoying hot springs thanks to an article published by LIFE Magazine. These wild monkeys’ charm was further broadcasted when the athletes who joined the Nagano Winter Olympics visited the park in 1989. The onsen has since become a popular destination among photographers and animal lovers worldwide!

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Winter is the best season to visit Jigokudani Monkey Park for the scene of many monkeys in the hot spring pool. Situated at an altitude of 850 meters near Japan’s biggest snow resort – Shiga Kōgen (志賀高原), the snow in the valley can accumulate a layer of 1 meter.

But don’t worry, the staff will clear the snow on the promenade for us (^_-)-☆.

The Japanese macaque, also known as snow monkeys, have a habit of staying within a specific zone where they can find continuous food sources. Utilizing this habit, the park can lure the snow monkeys to visit during the day. Established away from surrounding villages and crop fields, the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is able to protect the crops from damage by wildlife and give the snow monkeys an exclusive area of living.

The History of Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

If you have read our articles on other onsen resorts in Japan, you might remember many of the hot spring sources in Japan were discovered around the same way. Centuries ago, when hunters were out in the wild chasing their prey, they noticed their prey was using hot springs to heal themselves. Fast track the time to after the industrial revolution, the scene of wild animals entering a hot spring has never been seen anymore. This is probably why those stories of how the hot springs were discovered are now mostly regarded as legends.

But somewhere in the 20th century, a small snow monkey was seen enjoying the hot spring at onsen ryokan Kōrakukan (後楽館) near Jigokudani Monkey Park. It is said that it mimicked what the guests were doing. Upon seeing the small monkey relaxing in the hot spring, his mates eventually learned to enter the hot springs too!

Due to hygiene reasons and a purpose to protect wildlife and nature, an open-air bath was constructed exclusively for these monkeys in the Jigokudani Monkey Park. The joy of spending time in the hot spring has since been passed down among monkeys for generations.

Important: Especially the smaller monkeys, they might be so friendly and curious that they manage to stand on your belongings such as your professional camera. Please don’t touch them, as they might get frightened and give you a bite in return.

Why the Area Is Named Jigokudani

Back in the 19th century, in the valley where Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is located, there used to be a couple of geysers that produced some awful sounds, creating the image of hell in the locals’ minds.

Of course, the smell of the sulfur-based hot spring played an important role in making the area even more hell-like. This is why the valley was named Jigokudani, which means Hell Valley.

As time pass by, only this big geyser in the photo remains active. Although it is the only one left, the spring can shoot up as tall as 20 meters!

Nonetheless, the hot spring source is still active for the monkeys and us to warm up in the cold winter.

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The Founding Jigokudani Onsen Kōrakukan

According to Kōrakukan’s history, the wife of the third owner of the ryokan saw snow monkeys lingering around the onsen when she got up in the morning. So although she had never seen one in the hot spring pool, she doubted if the monkeys had been enjoying themselves when humans were still sleeping.

In 1957, due to ski resort constructions, the snow monkeys in the area were chased out of their original habitat causing damage to the locals’ crop fields. Feeling sorry for the monkeys, the wife of the 5th owner of Kōrakukan tried to lure the snow monkeys to the ryokan.

It wasn’t successful initially, but with the advice from Kyoto University’s professor and the help of the university’s researcher, they successfully changed the monkeys’ target to the apples they gave out to the monkeys.

Why did a monkey go into a hot spring pool in the first place? Well, he was chasing a piece of apple that was thrown at him. The apple accidentally fell into the pool, and so did the monkey!

Before the ryokan staff realized, the snow monkeys had become regulars at the onsen pool.

Later, due to the persuasion of one of Nagano Dentetsu’s employees, who was a regular of Kōrakukan, the company established Jigokudani Monkey Park!

How to Get to Jigokudani Monkey Park

Because Jigokudani Monkey Park is buried in the mountain, unless you are driving or joining one of the tours, which features the park on their itinerary, you will have to get off at JR Nagano Station (長野駅). Below is a rough guide of how long it might take you to get to Nagano Station, assuming you are taking the bullet train and/or limited express.

  • From Tokyo: around 1.5 hours
  • From Nagoya: around 3 hours
  • From Osaka: around 4 hours
  • From Kanazawa: around 3 hours

Tip: Consider getting the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) if you depart from Tokyo. A return trip from Tokyo will cost you 15,620 yen, which is almost the cost of the pass at 18,000 yen. The 5-day pass gives you unlimited train rides on all JR trains in the area, Tokyo Monorail, and Izu Kyuko Line. It also allows you to board the reserved carriages of bullet trains. Remember to purchase the pass before arriving in Japan to save on the 10% tax.

By Nagaden Express Bus

From the bus stop no. 4 at Nagano Station east exit, take the express bus bound for Shiga Heights (Shiga Kōgen, 志賀高原) and get off at Snow Monkey Park (スノーモンキーパーク).

  • Refer to HERE for the service’s timetable. You can translate the webpage to English by Google Chrome’s translation function at the right of the address bar. The timetable’s PDF has English bus stop labeled in addition to the Japanese
  • A one-way trip will cost 1,500 yen
  • The bus trip will take around 50 minutes

Tip: Get the SNOW MONKEY PASS(スノーモンキーパス) from Nagano Dentetsu’s ticket counter that gives you unlimited rides on Nagano Dentetsu and Nagaden Express Bus. The 2-Day Pass also includes admission to the Snow Monkey Park. The cost of the pass is currently 3,600 yen. For more information, please refer to Nagano Dentetsu’s website HERE (scroll down to the Snow Monkey Pass’s section that includes an English explanation).

By Nagano Dentetsu + Bus/Taxi

Once you get to JR Nagano Station, change to Nagano Electric Railway (Nagano Dentetsu, 長野電鉄) and get off at the terminal stop, Yudanaka (湯田中).

  • The entrance of Nagano Dentetsu’s Nagano Station underground is just in front of JR’s Nagano Station
  • You can check out the timetable HERE for the train’s departure time

From Yudanaka, change for Nagaden Bus’s (長電バス) Kanbayashi Line (上林線) and get off at Snow Moneky Park (スノーモンキーパーク).

  • Please refer to HERE and click on the link with a PDF icon marked for the timetable for the bus service
  • A way one trip will cost 310 yen
  • The bus trip will take around 10 – 15 minutes

You can also choose to take a taxi from Yudanaka Station.

Tip: If you are staying overnight at Shibu Onsen (渋温泉) on weekends and public holidays from December to April, talk to the staff at your ryokan to see if the Snow Monkey Holiday Mini Bus (スノーモンキーホリデー観に(ミニ)バス) is on. If yes, you can ask the staff to reserve on your behalf.

Driving to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

If you are driving, you can park at either of the below car parks.

  • Jigokudani Yaen Kōen Senyō Chūshajō (地獄谷野猿公苑専用駐車場) at Kanbayashi Onsen (上林温)
    • Parking is free
    • It is around a 30-minute walk to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
  • Jigokudani Chūshajō (地獄谷駐車場) near Shibu Onsen (渋温泉)
    • Parking will cost 500 yen
    • The road to the car park is narrow, which won’t fit large vehicles
    • The road to the car park is closed in winter
    • It is around a 15-minute walk to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

Tip: For those planning to drive, head to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park before noon if you want to visit the park on weekends and public holidays. This is to avoid traffic jams and the frustration of not being able to park when you get there.

Jigokudani Monkey Park’s Opening Hours and Admission Fees

  • From April to October, Jigokudani Monkey Park is open from 8:30 am to 5 pm
  • From November to March, Jigokudani Monkey Park is open from 9 am to 4 pm
  • The admission fee is
    • 800 yen for adults
    • 400 yen for elementary school to high school students

Important: The opening hours above is just a rough guide. Hours may change depending on the monkeys’ activities. The day’s opening hours are announced at the top of their official website HERE.

From Bus Stop, Snow Monkey Park to the Actual Snow Monkey Park

Unfortunately, because the mountain trail leading to the Jigokudani Monkey Park is too narrow, taxis and buses won’t be able to bring you straight to the park’s entrance.

From the bus stop, it will take around 40 – 60 minutes on foot depending on how fast you walk and how much snow is accumulated on the trail.

Important: There is no public toilet along the way.

Shigakogen Roman Museum (志賀高原ロマン美術館)

The bus stop is in front of the Shigakogen Roman Museum (志賀高原ロマン美術館). The museum was opened in 1997 to commemorate the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The building was designed under the theme of “coexistence with nature” by a well-known Japanese architect Kishō Kurokawa (黒川紀章). The collections in the museum include:

  • Excavated Roman glass bottles and jars
  • Artworks made of glass by Japanese artists
  • Paintings by Kodama Katei (児玉 果亭), who was born in Shibu Onsen (渋温泉)
  • Kilim in Central Asia
  • Other artworks from the Edo period all the way to the Taisho period

If you love to spend time in museums and art galleries, it is a nice little place to spend an hour or so. For information about opening hours and admission fees, please head over to their website HERE.

Continue Trekking Towards Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

From Shigakogen Roman Museum, the next Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park’s directory board is around a 5 to 6-minute walk away. From there, it is still 1.8 km to Snow Monkey Park. But at least there is a shrine and a few other facilities such as a cafe and restaurant on the way, so it won’t be a dull walk until you see a slope.

It is the steepest road along the promenade (until you get to the park’s entrance). After the slope, the trail is mainly flat and isn’t hard to walk on, even for the elderly.

The narrow road was not just constructed for us to visit the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. It has been there for centuries as a road to draw agricultural water and hot springs to the village at the foot of the mountain.

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Important: If you are heading to the Snow Monkey Park from December to March when the road is frozen, please wear slip-resistant shoes and walk carefully.

Roaming the cedar forest of fresh air and listening to birds sing creates a relaxing atmosphere, making the trip seems much shorter. If you are lucky, you might be greeted by Japanese serows at the side of the trail or squirrels on the tree (=゚ω゚)ノ.

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Tip: In winter, remember to put a hand warmer into both of your shoes to keep your feet warm. If you have one that can stick onto your clothes, that is even better, so they won’t move around in your shoes.

Jigokudani Onsen Kōrakukan (後楽館)

Remember the aforementioned ryokan where a snow monkey was first found in a hot spring pool? It is still taking in travelers today!

Jigokudani Onsen Kōrakukan established in 1864, existed 100 years before Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. The open-air onsen pool where the monkeys were spotted bathing is still there. If you are brave enough, it is probably your only chance to enjoy onsen with wild animals (≧▽≦).

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Why do you need the courage to do so? Besides the fact that they aren’t the pets that won’t attack you, other than the female-only onsen pool, the other open-air onsen pool is quite exposed. People heading to the Snow Monkey Park can see just everything from the promenade!

Also, Kōrakukan has two private baths for you to utilize if you don’t want to share your relaxing bathing time with strangers!

As the snow monkeys don’t always show up at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Parks, you can spend a night at Kōrakukan to increase your chance to see this unique scene! To book your stay, please reserve through their website HERE.

Important: The ryokan doesn’t have a pickup and drop-off service. So it is best if you can leave your luggage at one of the coin lockers at Nagano Station.

Tips: They do cater to special dietary requests. Remember to let them know when you book! Also, they have staff who can speak English (albeit not fluently).

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park’s Entrance

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Once you get to Kōrakukan, the snow monkey park is just a 5-minute walk away!

This set of staircases is the last bit of climbing you have to do before you meet the cute monkeys!

Inside the building where tickets are purchased, there is a small museum where you can learn about snow monkeys’ ecology.

Important: Before you head in to meet the snow monkeys, please put all plastic bags and food that you might be holding in your hands into your bag. If you do not, the snow monkeys could attack.

Some Interesting Knowlege About the Snow Monkeys

  • They are like humans in that they eat, drink, and sleep. The only difference is they don’t have to work.
  • They don’t have a “nest” where they head back to each night. As the sun disappears from the horizon, it signals them to search for a bed for the night.
  • When the weather is cold, they keep themselves warm by sticking together. You might also find one that is sleeping like a ball.
  • They drink from the hot spring pool that they bathe in. The hot spring in the onsen pool is controlled to be around 40 degrees. Whilst the temperature that each monkey likes differ, generally, the best temperature for them is from 40 – 42 degrees.
    • So if you see a monkey staring at the water surface for a while, that monkey is most likely re-hydrating
  • The snow monkeys mate in autumn (mainly in October to early November) when food is abundant. It takes half a year before the babies are born (i.e. in spring from late April to late June).
  • Baby snow monkeys stick with their mother until they are 2 to 3 months old before mingling with their peers.
  • They become adults when they reach 5 to 6 years old.
  • Snow monkeys are said to live as long as 30 years. But most of them won’t survive past their 20s.
  • Not all snow monkeys like hot springs, just like not all humans like to bathe.
  • Snow monkeys don’t need to dry their fur coat after a hot spring session. The hair closest to their body doesn’t get wet, plus their bodies are structured in a way that makes it difficult for heat to escape in winter.

What Do Snow Monkeys Eat

  • When the long winter ends in April, snow monkeys typically eat the young leaves and flowers on trees (such as beech and elm).
  • They do eat insects, but they don’t eat meat or seafood.
  • In autumn, they enjoy all sorts of nuts, such as chestnuts and walnuts. It is their busiest time of the year as it is their mating season as well.
  • In winter, with little food available, they eat tree bark and even soil (apparently, for the minerals that they can’t source from the plants they eat in winter)
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What Not to Do at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

  • You can’t bathe with the monkeys
  • Please don’t feed the monkeys
  • Please don’t eat inside the park for your safety. The monkeys will try to grab the food from you
  • Don’t try to touch any snow monkeys. They will fight you if they feel threatened
  • Don’t look into a monkey’s eye. It is a sign to the monkey that you hold hostility
  • Also, if you see the monkeys open their mouth wide, they are trying to scare you off. Please leave them along and leave the scene slowly
    • If you run, they might chase you
  • A selfie stick is not permitted
  • Photography is permitted. But again, watch the distance between the monkeys and your hand when you stretch your arm out. They won’t be happy if your hand holding your phone gets too close to them
  • No pets are allowed if you are traveling with one

Before You Head Out for Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

As snow monkeys are wild animals, there is no guarantee that they will show up in the park every day between the park’s business hours. Although the staff tries to search and guide them to the park (to the point that some snow monkeys will start heading to the park when they see the staff), it is best to check the live camera on their official website HERE to avoid disappointment.

Important: If you arrive at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in the late afternoon, remember to bring a torch with you. To preserve the animals’ natural habitat in the area, the promenade covered by the cedar forest does not have lighting.

Inside Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

The first thing you will notice in the park is that no fence separates you from the monkey. The intention is for us to observe the monkeys up close in a state similar to nature. Because feeding is prohibited in the park, the snow monkeys do not usually hold interest in visitors (apart from the curious small ones).

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If you ever see a person being surrounded by snow monkeys, it is either that person has broken the rule, or he is the staff who gives out feeds.

In Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, you get to witness the satisfied faces of the snow monkeys when they warm up in the hot spring pool. Just like how the Japanese love to bath each night to keep warm and relax, the monkeys do the same to escape from the cold weather in winter.

If you stay in the park long enough, you will realize these snow monkeys act just like us human beings. Siblings chase after each other. And some of them like to jump into the pool from somewhere high (≧▽≦).

The Best Time of the Year to Visit Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

From late November to February, when Jigokudani is freezing cold, it is the time of the year snow monkeys like to stay in the onsen pool built for them.

Like human beings, no one likes to take a hot bath in hot summer. So don’t expect to see many snow monkeys enjoying the onsen in warmer months from March to October. It is simply too hot for them, especially with their furry coat.

March is also a month in which snow monkeys visit the park almost every day. But as the weather is warmer, it is doubtful they will be in the onsen pool.

Furthermore, in spring, from April to June, you have a high chance to meet the newborns (but make sure you check the live camera to confirm there are monkeys around before you head over)!

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The Time of the Year Where Snow Monkeys Are Likely to Be Absent

  • Apart from winter, snow monkeys may be either absent for the day or arriving late and/or leaving early
  • From October to early November is the most active period for the snow monkeys. There is too much food in the mountain, and they are busy mating. So they might not be bothered to come down for the feed

The Feeding Time at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

The feeding in Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is only a means to keep monkeys observable. So the amount of food given and the feeding time is not set. It is all dependent on the situation on the day.

If you ever wonder how the monkeys know whether there will be no more feeding for the day, the answer is apple. When the apple is given out, that is the signal to the monkeys they should start leaving and secure a place for a good night’s sleep.

Important: Don’t wait around for the staff to feed the monkeys with apples. This usually occurs at around 5 pm, which may mean it will be too dark on your way back to the bus stop. Also, monkeys will not necessarily wait around for the apple.

Explore the Chestnuts Town – Obuse

If you aren’t in a hurry, we recommend you stop by Obuse for the delicious chestnut desserts and the dramatic ukiyo-e that the town is famous for. The town is conveniently located on the same train line as Jigokudani Monkey Park.

Find out more about what you can do and where to go, and of course, where to eat when you get to this gorgeous town with our Obuse article (=゚ω゚)ノ.

You can even visit someone’s backyard without notifying the owner!

Obuseto
Find out how to get to this scenic spot by clicking the photo!

Discover the Awesomeness of Zenkōji Temple and the Surrounding Attractions around Nagano Station

Zenko-ji-Nakamisedori-Street-Nagano-Japan
Click the photo for more information about the attractions around Nagano Station!

Before you arrive at Obuse, you will surely reach Nagano Station first. If you have time, we strongly recommend you to explore the attractions around the station, especially around Zenkōji Temple.

For more information, refer to our article on Zenkōji Temple!

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