As we say goodbye to the Year of the Monkey in the Chinese zodiac, here is a blog post about monkeys. If you were a monkey and wanted to keep warm during winter, what will you do? Soak in a hot tub of course! So if you want to see monkeys soaking in a hot spring in the middle of winter, I’ll show you how to find them.
Last December we decided to visit Japan in winter and the highlight of our trip was to see the famous snow monkeys of Jigokudani Yaenkeon Park. The name Jigokudani means ‘Hell Valley’ and is named because of the steep sides and steaming hot water that comes out of the ground. The nearest town is Yamanouchi which is well known for it’s onsens and surrounding ski resorts.
Arriving in Tokyo, we drove northwest towards the city of Nagano which hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics. From Nagano it’s around 30km to Yamanouchi. In total it’s a more than 4 hours drive from Toyko to Yamanouchi. The distance and time taken to get here means you can’t do this in a day trip from Tokyo and your best option is to stay in Nagano or Yamanouchi, although I would prefer to stay in Yamanouchi as there are several Ryokans here available for visitors to experience Japanese traditional hospitality.
Staying in Yamanouchi
Staying at a Ryokan is quite different from staying at a hotel in that the service is more personal and the rooms are traditional Japanese style. We had to sit on the floor as there are no chairs in the room, and every evening the staff would put aside the small table and lay out the Japanese futons for us to sleep. In the basement was the public onsen where hotel guests could soak in the hot spring water. Yutakas were provided in the rooms and we wore them to dinner, to the onsen, to the lobby and you can sleep in them.
Jigokudani Yaenkoen Snow Monkey Park
The Jigokudani Yaenkeon Park is less than 3km from the Yamanouchi and the Ryokan provides a free bus shuttle service to and from the park. But this service is only in the morning and is one time. Getting to see the snow monkeys isn’t very straight forward as we would soon find out.
For those of us who come from the tropics, taking a walk in the cold crisp air of winter is quite a pleasant change from the hot and humid weather that we are used to, and it gave me some time to enjoy the silence of the forest around me.
After a short hike of around 20 minutes, we arrived at the monkey spa. If you were expecting a natural hot spring where monkeys gather, then you would be quite disappointed. The hot spring is man made actually and with proper boardwalks for visitors to view the monkeys. Park staff are also on hand to prevent over enthusiastic visitors from touching or feeding the primates. Well, don’t let that dampen your spirits. The monkeys here are wild Japanese macaques, which come to forage for food. The park staff provides some food for the monkeys during winter months when food is hard to find.
After getting your fill of monkeys bathing, it’s time to hike back out to the bus stop. For our Ryokan shuttle bus, the pick up is only 1 timing – 10.30am. Miss it and we had to walk back or take the public bus.
Practical Advice for Visiting the Snow Monkey Park
Whether you are taking the public bus, shuttle bus or driving to the snow monkey park, I would advise you to get there early just as the park opens. The operating hours are from 9am to 4pm during winter months. If you are driving, be there early as the carpark is quite small and gets full quickly. 8.30am is a good time to reach there, and with the 20 minute hike to the ticket office, you would be just in time for 9am as the park opens. The main tourist crowds start to come in from 10am onwards, and by this time, the number of visitors outnumber the monkeys.
The hiking trail can be icy and slippery due to the frozen ground. The gift shop at the start of the hike sells crampons and has snow boots and jackets for rental. Do make use of them if you need to. The gift shop’s crampons do sell out fast, otherwise you can buy crampons from the convenience stores in Yamanouchi before visiting the park.
Wear warm clothes and a waterproof outer shell. In winter it’s below freezing and the weather in the mountains changes quickly, so you may get snow or rain while hiking. There is only 1 small hut shelter 2/3 of the way into the trail, and besides that, there is no other shelter.
Besides the snow monkey park, there are several ski resorts in the mountains around Yamanouchi. We decided to visit one of the ski resorts which is just a 30 minutes drive from our Ryokan. Japan’s largest ski resort, Shiga Kogen, is also near Yamanouchi and hosted several events from the 1998 Winter Olympics.
In Yamanouchi itself, there are several onsens like Yudanaka and Shibu where you can visit for a soak in the hot springs. Food wise, breakfast and dinner were already provided for by the Ryokan, so we only went out for lunch. There are several small family run restaurants which makes for a very traditional experience.
We stayed 2 days in Yamanouchi which was quite sufficient to visit the snow monkey park twice, enjoy the onsens, and visit a ski resort. If you just want to ski then staying at the ski resort would be better. Being a small town in the mountains, Yamanouchi is pretty laid back and is a cool respite from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo.
Getting to Yamanouchi
The main access to Yamanouchi is from Nagano city by train or express bus. To get to Nagano from Tokyo, you can take the JR Shinkansen which takes around 80-100 minutes, costing around ¥8,200 one way, although this can be fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass.
At Nagano, you have to change to the underground Nagaden Nagano Station, next to JR Nagano Station. Local and limited express trains run from Nagaden Nagano Station to Yamanouchi every hour and takes around 50-70 minutes. Tickets cost around ¥1,200 one way and are not covered by the Japan Rail Pass. Express buses also run from Nagano to Yamanouchi but they do not stop in the town. Instead they stop at the snow monkey park and Shiga Kogen.
Once you arrive at Yamanouchi (Yudanaka Station), you can take a public bus or taxi to your hotel. Otherwise, most of the tourists actually walk since it’s a small town. Some of the Ryokans offer to pick up guests from the train station (like ours), so do check with them if they do.
For ourselves, we rented a car from Tokyo as Yamanouchi was just one stop in a longer road trip. I will post more about the other places we visited in later blogs.
Cost wise, to rent a car or take the train would depend on the number of people in your group. If it’s 1-2 persons, it’s more cost effective to take the train. If there are 4 or more of you (like in a family) then it’s better to rent a car. However, you may not want to rent a car if you are not confident in driving in Japan or handling snowy conditions.
If you decide to rent a car, besides the rental and fuel costs, you also have to factor in expressway toll charges which can be quite hefty. The toll charges for this road trip came to almost SGD200.
Get a car with an English GPS if possible and ask for the ETC card to be inserted (toll charge card). Our car only came with a Japanese GPS and it was quite cumbersome not being able to understand some of the menu choices onscreen. Selecting your destination is simply keying in the local telephone number of the hotel/attraction/restaurant that you want to get to. The ETC card from the car rental will record all toll charges incurred and you pay it when you return the car.