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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).