Snow Monkeys and Japanese Hot Springs
…by Alok and Cara
The Japanese are well known for their inventiveness – karaoke, Sony Walkmans and digital pets have undoubtedly changed the world. But for my money, the best Japanese invention of all time has to be the use of the onsen, or Japanese hot spring.
If it sounds a little odd to take a hot bath with a bunch of strangers (albeit segregated by gender), you only need to take a visit on a bone chillingly cold day to one of Japan’s beautiful public onsen to understand the magic of this delightful ritual. Even better if the hot springs are in the open air and the snow is falling. It truly is relaxing, warming and good fun.
And it’s not just humans that have figured this out. When the film Baraka spectacularly showed a group of Japanese macaques escaping from the biting cold Nagano winter by lazing about in a hot spring, in seemingly such a ‘human’ way – people around the world added this spectacular sight to their bucket list.
Destination – Shibu Onsen
In April 2012 we managed to tick the ‘Sighting the snow monkeys’ off our list as part of our trip to Japan. After a long series of train rides from Kyoto to Yudanaka in Nagano Prefecture – the gateway to a number of onsen towns – we arrived at the pretty town of Shibu Onsen. Shibu Onsen is a quaint town, renowned for its scorching thermal waters and it is possible to take a dip in the public baths around the town, or as in our case the in-house onsen of our traditional Japanese inn (ryokan).
Our ryokan at Shibu Onsen, Senshinkan Matsuya, was one of the nicest of our travels. Our lovely host picked us up from the station and we enjoyed using the hot spring at the inn. Dinner was traditional and delicious – amazing presentation of delicate dishes including an exquisite cherry blossom cake for dessert. The following morning, after an equally delicious breakfast, our hosts dropped us to the entrance of what we had come to Shibu Onsen for – the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
Ticking the bucketlist
Luckily it was a perfect day – lots of snow, but sunny. It was quite slippery and a rather chilly 1.8 km walk that felt much longer due to our anticipation and the weather.
When we finally reached the park we were not disappointed – there were heaps of monkeys – I would guess that we saw at least fifty.
Some were in the hot springs, others playing, fighting and showing off. Some were just sitting in the snow with flakes in their fur looking for food. It was a delight to see baby monkeys leaping around and we managed to get some excellent photos.
It is easy to see why this is such a popular attraction – we certainly weren’t the only ones at the Park that day – but it is certainly worthwhile if you visit in the right conditions.
Need to know
- To see Snow Monkeys in the snow – it pays to visit when it is, you know, snowing. I have read some unintentionally hilarious reviews of the snow monkey park that complained that all they saw was a bunch of monkeys sitting in some hot water, sans snow. That will be the case of course if you visit in July. For the best chances of seeing snow – try December to March. We visited at the end of the season, in an unseasonably cold April, and were lucky.
- The website for the Snow Monkey Park is – http://www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/english/html/top_e.htm
- For those from warmer climates – pack those thermals and wear very sturdy, grippy shoes – there was quite a steep incline at the beginning of the walk to the park that quickly became very icy and slushy. Do take care.
- We recommend our lovely ryokan – http://eihachi.com/english.html
About the authors:
Alok and Cara are an Australian-Indian couple based in Perth, Western Australia. Cara is the writer and planner of their vacations and Alok is the photographer. They attempt to capture some of the great places that they have been to and inspire others to travel. Here is a link to their blog: http://www.idreamofitineraries.com/