snow monkeys of Jigokudani Japan.
During the cold winter months, Japanese macaque monkeys descend from their mountain forest to scavenge for food, and to bathe in the small hot-spring pool at Jigokudani, returning to the forest in the evening.
Although wild, these snow monkeys are well habituated to humans, allowing very close approach, providing the visitors follow appropriate protocols e.g., don’t touch, don’t feed, and don’t stare at the monkeys. In fact, they are likely to run across the shoulders of visitors who lean against the lower rock wall of the hot-spring pool.
There is a live cam viewing the hot spring pool at http://www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/livecam/monkey/index.htm.
The best weather conditions for taking mood style photographs occur in midwinter when there is a deep blanket of snow covering the ground, and snow is falling gently with no wind. Under these conditions, the bathing macaques are seen covered in a light dusting of snow against a backdrop of swirling white mist. However, these conditions make it relatively difficult to get to Jigokudani, as it gets dark early, and the final approach to the reserve is on foot along a snow covered footpath that can be icy in parts. Further, being in a sheltered valley at an elevation of 850m it can become extremely cold, so getting to and from the monkey reserve needs appropriate clothing and some forethought.
The closest accommodation to the snow monkeys is the Korakukan Ryokan, a Japanese inn located 5 minutes’ walk from the Jigokudani monkey reserve entrance. There are more hotels and Japanese inns at the small hamlet of Kanbayashi Onsen a 25-40 minute moderate walk (2km) through the forest along a snow covered path. The widest range of accommodation is at Yudanaka Onsen a hot spring resort town some 30 minutes further away by road and the rail terminus for the train from Nagano.
Getting to Yudanaka 湯田中 by train.
From Tokyo get the Shinkansen ASAMA to Nagano city (90min), see Nagano station map Fig2.
At Nagano station change trains and get on the local Nagano Dentecu line to Yudanaka station (50 min) see Yudanaka access map Fig1. A timetable is available at http://www.hyperdia.com/en/
Getting to Kanbayashi Onsen.
1) Take the bus from Nagano station to ShigaKogen and get off at Kanbayashi Onsen Guchi bus stop, at Kanbayashi Onsen, (40 minutes). http://www.nagadenbus.co.jp/express.html (need to Google translate) then choose winter lines express Shigakougen http://www.nagadenbus.co.jp/robus/2012fuyu/shigawin.htm . The two important bus stops on this timetable are:
長野駅東口 Nagano Station East Exit.
神林温泉口 Kanbayashi Onsen Guchi (get off here).
2) Take the local bus from outside Yudanaka station to Kanbayashi Onsen, (30 min).
From either bus stop, it is a walk up the snow covered road past the car park onto the well-marked path leading to the start of the 2km forest trail , (see snow monkey bus map Fig3). Note, there are boxes containing short lengths of rope placed at the start of the path. These can be used to increase traction in the snow by tying the ropes around the shoes.
3) Take a taxi from Yudanaka station to the start of the trail.
4) The quickest and most convenient way to the Monkey spa is by Snow Monkey Minibus departing 6 times per day from outside Yudanaka station to the Jigokukdani parking lot just below the Korakukan Ryokan. From this car park, it is a 7 min walk uphill to the Ryokan and another 5min across the bridge to the park entrance. It is then a further 5 minute walk to the monkey spa. Unfortunately, the minibus does not run every day and to ensure a seat a reservation should be made the day before at the minibus stop ticket office. See http://www.yudanaka-shibuonsen.com/snow_monkey_mini_bus. Further, this route is subject to cancellation if heavy snow blocks the road. One can walk this uphill route, but it will probably take well over an hour.
♦ We stayed 6 days at the Korakukan Ryokan. On the way there, we took the Snow Monkey Minibus (did not have prior reservation) to the Jigokudani car park. For the return journey, the Korakukan Ryokan arranged a taxi to meet us at the trail head car park in Kanbayashi Onsen.
♦ Both routes are not suitable for normal luggage, and a backpack should be used.
♦ There are luggage coin lockers at both Nagano and Yudanaka train stations.
♦ The Korakukan Ryokan was extremely convenient, allowing a number of trips to be made to the snow monkeys during the day. The staff was welcoming and very helpful. Our front room on the first floor was spacious and had a nice view. However, there is only one common toilet complex for men and women down the hall on the ground floor, and separate communal hot-spring baths for men and women. There are also two hot-spring bath rooms reserved for families, and an outdoor hot-spring bath that is frequented by monkeys. Breakfast and dinner were included, and a light lunch was provided on our request.
Booking can be done direct, (tel: 0269-33-4376, fax: 0269-33-3244), or through www.japaneseguesthouses.com.
♦ Flash photography is allowed at the monkey spa, but I preferred not to use it as it effects the mood of the image.
♦ Useful lenses include a 16-36mm zoom for close up and landscape, and a 70-200mm zoom for portraits.
♦ A tripod is a bother and if steadiness is needed it is more convenient to use a mono-pod.
♦ If you want to move quickly around the rock pool to take advantage of a fleeting composition, attention has to be paid to the traction of the boots. Rope tied around the boots help. Better, are stainless steel coils such as those made by Yaktrax http://www.yaktrax.com/.