I don’t know about you, but even though I have lived in Japan for four years, I still think of it as just Tokyo and don’t appreciate the diversity and nature that Japan has to offer. But when we moved here last year, number 1 on my husband’s to do list was to see the wild snow monkeys.
Jigokudani Yaen-Koen has been a protected area for the monkeys since 1964. The park is located in North West Honshu and is accessible by both car and train. If driving you will need snow tires/chains in the winter. If taking the train you can stop at Nagano Station and take the Shga Kogen bus (30-40 minutes) or travel further to the Yudanaka Station.
Entrance fees are 800 yen for adults and the park is open 9-4 in the winter / 8:30 – 5 in the summer. There is a tough 1.8 km walk from the park entrance to the monkeys. I didn’t find it difficult due to the length or the incline but due to the ice.
I was surprised at how many monkeys there are in the park. There were hundreds and they have no problem getting up close and personal with you. However, expectation management, they hang out because they are fed by the park staff. (But don’t feed them yourself and in fact don’t bring any bags or food into the park. The monkeys recognize food and will try to take it). When we were there we saw monkeys hanging around the onsens but none actually went in the water.
The park was crowded with tourists and I think I saw more western tourists at this one spot than anywhere else in Japan. But thankfully, the crowds did not diminish the experience. There was still room to move around and see the monkeys without staring at the back of someone’s head.
There are some beautiful Ryokans in the area and if I were to return I would stay the night and enjoy a local inn and onsen.
Note: while you can see the snow monkeys year round, I just can’t imagine it as the same experience any time other than winter.