One of the highlights of my ski holiday in Japan was a visit to the Snow Monkey Park in Nagano, about an hour’s bus ride from Nagano station. You don’t need to join an expensive tour to see the snow monkeys. You can buy a one-day pass from Nagano train station and it includes unlimited local train and bus rides for the day and admission to the park.

The Japanese Ryokan (guest house) at the entrance of the Snow Monkey Park

The park opened in 1964 and is located in Jigokudani (地獄谷) – literally Hell’s Valley. So called because of the steam and boiling water that bubbles out of small crevices in the frozen ground surrounded by steep cliffs and dense forests.

Perhaps the 2km walk from the bus stop through the forests to the park at an elevation of 850m keeps it uncrowded despite it being very well-known.

Jigokudani Geyser (地獄谷噴泉) at the entrance of the Snow Monkey Park
Jigokudani Geyser (地獄谷噴泉) at the entrance of the Snow Monkey Park

The monkeys in the park spent most of the day looking for food, playing in the hot spring or take turns grooming each other. They are used to the crowds gathering around them and they often pose in front of the cameras.

The monkeys take turns grooming each other in the hot spring
Snowing monkeys enjoying a hot bath in the onsen

They have a social hierarchy similar to ours and just like humans, they sometimes fight and quarrel in front of the visitors. The climate in the area is very hostile in winter. The mercury dipped to -10C when we visited the park – that’s why so many monkeys came out to have a dip in the hot spring.

The snow monkeys are used to the attention and they often post for the cameras
When not bathing in the hot spring, snow monkeys huddle together to keep warm
The water of the onsen is so clear you can see the monkeys' feet under the water
Visitors can get very close to the snow monkeys while they go about their own business
The snow monkeys often roam around the park to look for food or playmates

There is a sole Japanese Ryokan (guest house) opposite the entrance of the park with an outside onsen for guests but the monkeys come uninvited and take a dip in the hot spring alongside delighted guests.

The snow monkeys take a dip in the hot spring with guests of the Japanese Ryokan near the park's entrance.

On the way back to the bus stop, you can stop at Enza Cafe for a light meal or afternoon tea. I highly recommend their Chicken Ramen made with special miso from Zenkoji temple (善光寺).

Chicken Ramen with special miso broth from Zenkoji (善光寺)