We had seen them on National Geographic specials, TV documentaries, photos of the year, and now we were seeing them for ourselves (live action video.) They live just an hour and a half north of Tokyo by bullet train, in the forested mountains of Jigokundani, near the onsen town of Yudanaka, farther north than any other species of their kind. It The Japanese macaques or “snow monkeys” are easily accessible to humans, and very adapted to the hundreds of people pointing cameras at them daily, clicking away on high speed trying to capture a moment, an expression, and sometimes a selfie by posing with them. They go about their business of grooming, socializing, and just soaking in the hot springs. The local rangers know them well…they warn us not look one particular male in the eye, he can get aggressive and takes it as a threat. One woman made the mistake of touching one on the back as they ran by…I feared for her because the monkey immediately stopped grabbed her shirt sleeve and bared his teeth. But it was only a warning and he quickly let go and ran on.
The hike to the hot springs takes about 30 minutes and can be a bit slippery depending on the time of day and time of year. We had slushy snow on the trail that wound through a forest uphill to the hot springs. The admission price to the park is 500 yen (a little over $4). There are lockers that take 100 yen deposit if you need to store a pack, purse, or other items. There are also toilets and a small warmed room with famous photos on the walls of the monkeys taken over the years by different photographers.
From there it is a short walk over a bridge to the pool where the monkeys hang out. Most of them are on the hillside or playing on the bridge near the river edge below. But the gathering of most tourists is around the hot spring where there always a few monkeys soaking. There are no barriers between you and the monkeys. A small ledge around one end of the soaking tub allows you to get at eye level and the monkeys often scurry around the edge of the pool, jumping over cameras and the unaware tourist while their eye is glued to the end of a telephoto lens. Seeing these “monkeys in the mist” is definitely a unique experience that is worth a visit on any trip to Japan.