On our way back home to Osaka yesterday we stopped at the famous Jigokudani onsen (hot springs) to see the “snow monkeys” (Japanese Macaque). I have seen the photos in National Geographic and so it was exhilarating to see it for myself. We had to walk about 3 kilometers to get to the springs, along a trail through a narrow ravine in the foothills outside the small town of Yamanouchi in the Nagano prefecture. They are set up for tourists and I was thinking tourist trap, but the monkeys are so darn cute and with the snow coming down, it really was worth the visit.
The walk was quite nice through the tall Sugi (Japanese Sugi Pine) trees. The brown trunks and green needles stood out in against a backdrop of white snow. There was not too many people at the baths to ruin the experience. There were several geothermal hot springs spewing out into the river that made the rocky ravine. You could smell sulfur in some areas. The monkeys were not bothered by the crowd and went about their daily lives. There were probably 50-100 monkeys in the area.
The Japanese Macaque is the northernmost primate in the world and endemic to Japan. It was so strange to see monkeys in snow. They have a tough go in the winter, and the locals feed them, similar to deer in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A few were swimming in the warm pools but most were climbing the cliffs and foraging for food under the snow. There is a small hotel near the springs and they were on the roof and climbing on the air conditioners.
In the summer they disperse in the local forests, but in the winter they congregate near the springs. It was definitely worth the visit. Thanks to Amy for organizing the trip!