Jigokudani Monkey Park: Famous Snow Monkeys in Nagano, Japan
We’ve always wanted to see the famous snow monkeys which, as we were told, lie just a short distance from Nagano at the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
It’s said to be best visited during winter— however, just to reach the park, you’d have to embark on a 1.6-kilometre hike through the woods. And take the same way out again. This hike is notoriously slippery during winter, which in turn posed a dilemma. When would be the best, yet safest, time to visit?
We placed our bets for the beginning of March, when it would be the end of winter and the beginning of spring. We even checked the live cameras every day before our trip, fervently hoping that snow would still be sticking on the ground at the time of our visit.
Just to manage expectations, sightings of the snow monkeys aren’t guaranteed — the Japanese Macaques are entirely wild, and live high up in the mountains. They’re incredibly hardy, and are able to survive harsh sub-zero winters. They often come down to Jigokudani to bathe in the man-made onsen; during summer months, it’s common for the monkeys to not come to the park at all. The park is otherwise open from 9am to 4pm all year round.
It’s said that the monkeys only soak in the onsen on particularly cold days; true enough, they didn’t do so on the day of our visit, when it was 0 degrees celsius but with plenty of warm sunshine. But hey, we were happy enough to see them frolic around in their natural habitat!
When you enter the park, you’ll meet a forked road where you can either go down to the stream (which goes up to the onsen too), or directly to the onsen. We chanced upon a monkey almost immediately, which was just chilling in the snow and chewing on branches. Groups of monkeys scampered around along the opposite bank of the stream, their coats blending in with the brownish terrain.
A short walk will bring you to the star of the show: the onsen. The monkeys perch on the side of the water to drink, in a manner that’s very much reminiscent of the downward dog yoga pose.
The monkeys seem very much accustomed to humans; however, please be respectful of the wild animals, and maintain a safe distance at all times.
Visit in May to see the little babies; we were lucky to see just one or two during our visit.
Since it was a sunny day, the monkeys were enjoying sunbathing in the warmth, and picking fleas from each others’ fur.
See if you can spot them running along the snow, as if they were playing a playful game of catching with each other.
Jigokudani is deep in the woods, and is only accessible via a 1.6-kilometre hike (or a return 3.2-kilometre hike). Don’t let this turn you off, however; on a snowy day, the walk is incredibly magical. Make your way through towering trees along a carpet of snow, as snow floats down from the branches, and gentle rays of sunlight peek through the canopy. Don’t worry about getting lost, as there’s only one route that you can take. The hike starts after a short 10-minute walk from the bus stop.
The walk can be icy and slippery at the height of winter; to make things easier, simply rent some crampons from the gift shop at the start of the hike.
However, to put things into perspective, we managed to do the trip with an 8-month-old baby in tow, and we loved every minute of it! If you’re planning to bring little kids along, it’s best to baby-wear them in a carrier, as the hike is not stroller-friendly. Plus, you’ll have to go up a short flight of steps at the end of the hike and trust us, that is not something you’d want to do whilst lugging a stroller.
There are also coin lockers once you enter the park should you wish to store your belongings; it’s important to not have any food in your hands or plastic bags.
Getting to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park from Nagano
A 1.5-hour shinkansen ride from Tokyo will bring you to Nagano. From Nagano, all it takes is a 50-minute bus ride to get to Jigokudani. Grab your tickets from the Nagano Dentetsu Station; we recommend getting the two-day Snow Monkey Pass, which costs JPY3,600 (~SGD36.60) for adults and JPY1,800 (~SGD18.30) for children.
This pass includes the 2-way bus ride (otherwise JPY3,000; ~SGD30.50), entry to Jigokudani (JPY800; ~SGD8), and can also be used for unlimited rides on the Nagano Dentetsu Line, the Nagaden Express Bus, and the local Nagaden Bus. If you choose to take the train to Jigokudani (followed by a bus from Yudanaka Station), you can stop off at Obuse Town, as well as Yudanaka & Shibu Onsen on the way. Do note that the pass is valid for two days, inclusive of the day of purchase — it’s hence recommended to only buy it on the day that you’re intending to visit Jigokudani.
This is the current bus schedule — do check with the station for the updated timings.
After you’ve gotten your pass, head through the underpass to the Nagano Station East Exit. Go up the stairs to bus stop 23 or 24, where you’ll be able to catch the bus to Jigokudani. The journey is comfortable, fuss-free, and even boasts some pretty gorgeous scenery on the way.
Is Jigokudani difficult to get to? Not really. Does it require some level of fitness to access? Moderately. Is it worth it? Yes! Don’t miss out on this opportunity to see these snow monkeys in the wild, but do remember to manage your expectations. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see many, or if they don’t soak in the onsen — they’re wild animals, after all, and not robots slated to perform.
The visit to Jigokudani was one of our favourite parts of the trip, especially with how magical the falling snow made it. Go bananas with this once-in-a-lifetime experience!