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Ultimate Guide to Snow Monkey Onsen

By Team Japan Switch + Rai Abhinav | , 2022

Visiting a monkey onsen is only one of the many reasons why you should schedule a trip to Japan at least once in your life. Famous for its hot springs, Japan draws thousands of visitors each year for this reason alone. And perhaps one of the biggest draws is visiting the famous monkey onsen at Jigokudani Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑, Jigokudani Yaen Kōen). In this article, we explore that, along with other monkey onsens in Japan, in the hope of offering some insight into this slightly unusual tradition.

This article is part of our extensive series on living in Japan and online Japanese lessons.

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    First things first, what is an onsen?

    The word onsen (温泉) literally translates to “hot water spring” and is a naturally formed hot spring bath. Because Japan still sees a fair amount of volcanic action, the onsen forms naturally every year, and is particularly delectable in winter.

    Basically, the water of the hot spring is heated geothermically underground to boiling point, then rises bubbling to the surface. The temperature of onsen water is at least 25 degrees (Celsius), and must contain at least one of 19 naturally occurring minerals to qualify as an onsen.

    If monkeys or group bathing isn't your thing, check out our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Private Onsen here!

    A brief history of monkey onsen

    As we just saw, natural onsens are quite popular in Japan, and can be found in most mountain regions in the country. A monkey onsen is a regular hot water spring where monkeys, specifically Japanese Macaques, enter to bathe.

    Japanese Macaques, which are also known as Snow Monkeys, populate the same mountainous areas where you might typically find hot springs. They usually travel in larger groups. It can be quite interesting for visitors to observe the way the monkeys interact with one another. What makes visiting the monkey onsen particularly enjoyable is that the Macaques have by now grown accustomed to the presence of tourists. That allows them to go about their business unhindered, and makes for a more natural viewing experience.

    Note: Bear in mind that the name “Snow Monkeys” can be deceptive, since the Macaques have been sighted in more humid areas, as well. 

    The most famous monkey onsen is at Jigokudani Monkey Park, in the Yamanouchi Valley. Within the park, there is one man-made hot spring, located near the entrance of the park, that is within the Macaques’ natural habitat. 

    Fun Fact: The word “Jigokudani” literally translates to “the Valley of Hell”. The valley, located near the traditional onsen towns of Yudanaka and Shibu, is thus known because of the heavy volcanic activity in the area. The hot water and steam that rises through the valley is what gives it this foreboding name.

    Aside from the Jigokudani Monkey Park, you may also observe the monkey onsen at the Yunokawa Onsen, in Hokkaido. For a more in-depth look at either park, scroll down.

    Monkeys bathing at the Snow Monkey Onsen

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    Why do monkeys enter the onsen?

    Naturally, the reason the monkeys enter the onsen (usually traveling in groups) is to bathe and cleanse themselves. Enjoying a nice, hot dip, especially in winter, is as pleasurable to them as it would be to us, humans.

    This habit of the Macaques actually has quite an interesting history. Although the primary feature of the Jigokudani Monkey Park is now the bathing monkeys, it wasn’t always this way. Initially, the park was designed to foster and protect the Snow Monkeys. 

    But then something unusual happened. The Macaques started noticing visitors at the nearby Korakukan Jigokudani resort, bathing in the hot spring there. And on the basis of “monkey see, monkey do”, the Macaques swiftly decided to follow suit. While it was cute and generally non-threatening for humans to bathe alongside the monkeys, it wasn’t really hygienic. So the keepers of the park decided to build the Macaques their very own spring, so they could bathe in peace, and stop wreaking havoc on human onsen.

    Although situated inside man-made parks, the Macaques are left to roam freely, and make their own schedule. Because of this, there’s no specific time when you’re certain to see the Snow Monkeys enjoying a hot dip. However, the monkeys have been observed to spend most of their time in winter inside the springs. For female Macaques, in particular, it’s not just a matter of pleasure, but the hot water, loaded with healthy minerals, can provide stress-relief.

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    Monkey Onsen Etiquette

    Before you start planning your visit to the monkey onsen, it’s wise to read a bit about the dos and don’ts of visiting such a place. While it’s generally considered safe to visit a monkey onsen, there are still some basic rules that you’d do well to observe. The monkeys may be accustomed to the presence of humans in their natural habitat. However, that doesn’t mean you have permission to interact with them, or indeed, that it is safe to do so.

    In fact, most monkey onsen have very strict policies, prohibiting monkey interaction, including touching or petting the monkeys.

    Can I bathe together with the monkeys?

    Unfortunately, not. While it would certainly be a cute idea, and may provide for some exciting photo opportunities, bathing with the monkeys is strictly prohibited. Doing so would be unhygienic, and might pose a threat to your health.

    While that is the rule for most parks, including the “Valley of Hell” itself, it’s still possible to bathe alongside the Macaques. The Korakukan Ryokan spring, where the Snow Monkeys first started copying bathing humans, is still operating today. Here, you can brave the hot waters alongside the Macaques, and get an unforgettable experience. However, bear in mind that because the monkeys are left to wander freely, it’s impossible for park staff to guarantee your safety. So choosing to bathe alongside the monkeys carries an implied risk.

    Is it safe?

    Since the monkeys are accustomed to the presence of humans, it’s generally considered safe to be around them. Even if you bathe in a hot spring with Macaques, it’s unlikely that they will attack you in any way, since most of them are quite docile around visitors.

    That being said, it would be wise to adopt a temperate approach, and not go into the spring guns blazing. Basically, you don’t want the monkeys to perceive you as threatening, so it might be a good idea not to be overly bombastic.

    A picture of steams coming out of an onsen

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    Is it hygienic?

    Now, that’s a different matter. While it’s true that monkeys carry a number of serious diseases, among which hepatitis, herpes B virus, and so on, those are mostly transmitted through scratching and biting. If you are attacked by a monkey, you need to disinfect the wound promptly, washing it with soap and water, at least. You’ll also need to seek immediate medical assistance.

    However, we’ve just established that the Macaques at the Korakukan Ryokan spring are docile, and are used to humans. So, they’re unlikely to bite or scratch you.

    While some people deem it gross to bathe with monkeys, it’s probably a matter of personal preference. But be warned that there is a small risk in taking a dip with the Macaques.

    The onsen water itself is not only clean, but laden with healthy natural minerals. Visitors are asked to take a bath before entering the pool to preserve the water’s cleanliness. However, the same is not true for the monkeys.

    Can I feed the monkeys?

    No. Park rules strictly prohibit touching or feeding the monkeys. Rest assured that park staff keep the monkeys happy and healthy, and of course, well-fed. Attempting to feed the monkeys can result in an altercation, or the primates becoming agitated. Not only that, but attempting to feed the Macaques with external and human foods can impact their health. So it’s best for everyone if you refrain from feeding the monkeys at the onsen.

    Should I bring anything with me to the monkey onsen?

    Generally speaking, no. It’s actually preferred that you limit the items you bring along with you to the monkey onsen. Since the furry inhabitants of the park can be quite curious, there’s always the risk of them searching your pockets or handbag. This is also the reason why visitors are asked not to bring along any shopping or plastic bags. Because if you’re dangling a plastic bag in front of a curious, cocky Macaque, you’re practically inviting it to jump at the bag.

    Obviously, it’s also discouraged to bring along food, or even have food leftovers in your pockets, bag, or even on your hands. The monkeys will pick up the scent immediately and jump at you.

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    When is the best time to visit?

    Although the monkey onsen at Jigokudani Monkey Park is open year-round, winter is by far the best time to plan your visit. This is because during winter, the monkeys are in the water most of the time, particularly pregnant female ones (as it provides relief). So if you’ve got your heart set on seeing a bathing group of Macaques, our advice would be to visit during winter.

    However, the monkeys are there year-round, as well, so it’s possible to witness this during spring, though rarer.

    Want to learn more about seasons in Japan? Read our Ultimate Guide to Seasons in Japan

    What time of day is best for seeing the monkeys?

    The best time to visit the onsen is around midday (12 noon through 2 PM), as that’s when the monkeys are fed. Noon visitors can see 50+ monkeys just waiting in the hot springs for their lunch. Be warned, however, that this is also one of the most popular visiting times, so the park might be quite crowded.

    How do I get to the monkey onsen?

    There are actually multiple ways to arrive at the Jigokudani Monkey Park from Tokyo, depending on how much walking you want to do. You can compress it all into a day trip from Tokyo, provided that you leave early in the morning (there are about 250 km between Tokyo and the Jigokudani Monkey Park).

    The best way to get to the park from Tokyo is by taking a train to Nagano, and then a bus from here to the park. Traveling by train, you want to make sure you catch the Shinkansen (the famous Japanese bullet train), otherwise it can be really time-consuming. Unfortunately, the train ride up there can get quite pricey, with a single one-way ticket costing around ¥8,400 (~$60). The trip shouldn’t take more than 80-100 minutes.

    From Nagano Station, you can take an express bus directly to the park. A one-way bus ticket costs around ¥1,500, and the ride itself shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes. You can get off at the Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop, and walk the rest of the way (30-40 min walk). Alternatively, some buses will take you to the Snow Monkey Park bus stop, from which there’s a shorter walk.

    Taking the bus is a good enough option, but you’ll need to plan carefully, since only about 8-10 buses run between Nagano and the monkey park per day.

    Alternatively, if you’re traveling through Japan by car, you could just drive up to the Jigokudani Monkey Park from Tokyo, which may prove more affordable, especially as a group. You can park your car in a nearby parking space, and hike 10-15 minutes to the park itself. Bear in mind, though, that the road may be closed during winter months.

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    A hotel near the Snow Monkey Onsen

    Where to stay near the monkey onsen

    While some visitors take a day-trip to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, others prefer to stay overnight. This may be a good idea in winter, as the park is only open for a handful of hours (between 9 AM to 4 PM). If traveling in winter, booking accommodation for a few nights might also be a good idea, as it would allow you to enjoy the winter sports in the park.

    The best place to stay is the Korakukan Jigokudani, the Minshuku-style (民宿, bed and breakfast) ryokan (旅館, traditional Japanese inn) where it all started. The facility is fitted with only 12 rooms, so make sure you book ahead. Here, you’ll also be able to take a relaxing dip in the Korakukan’s many hot springs (both indoor and outdoor). You may reserve family-size springs for private use, and maybe even be lucky enough to share a hot spring with some adventurous Macaques.

    If you do decide to stay at the Korakukan, bear in mind that there might be no Internet access up there. Payment by card might also be impossible, so make sure you bring some cash. The price per night per person usually runs between ¥15,000 ~ ¥20,000 ($100-$150).

    You can check availability for the Korakukan here, for your chosen visiting period. Since this is a family-run bed and breakfast that caters dinners and breakfast to its guests, you’ll need to specify any dietary restrictions prior to your stay, to make sure they have the food on-site.

    Alternatively, you could book a hotel in nearby Shibu or Yudanaka. Both of these are easily accessible from the monkey park, with a couple of buses running every hour. The bus ride itself shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes, so you wouldn’t be staying very far. According to preference, you may choose between a Japanese ryokan, or a traditional Western-style hotel. To boot, some accommodations in Shibu and Yudanaka offer special rides to their guests up to the park.

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    Other Monkey Onsen

    If you’re traveling through Japan, yet are unable to make it to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, do not despair. The Yunokawa Onsen is located in Hokkaido, which is the northernmost island of Japan. The Yunokawa Onsen is one of the country’s most famous hot springs, and can make for a nice alternative, if you still want to see a snow monkey hot water spring.

    According to legend, it all began with Takahiro, the ninth head of the Matsumae clan back in the 17th century, who was very ill at the time. One night, Takahiro’s mother had a divine vision that told her to take Takahiro to bathe at the hot spring at Yunokawa. She did, and within a few days, the boy was fully healed. As thank you, he erected a shrine nearby, accompanied by a golden gong, meant to signal to the gods gratitude, and ask for favor.

    The waters of the Yunokawa Onsen are still believed to carry important healing powers to this day. Now a modern-day spa facility, Yunokawa Onsen invites visitors to soak their feet, observe the Yukura Shrine, or indeed witness the snow monkeys bathing in the hot spring.

    The upside of visiting Yunokawa Onsen is that it’s generally smaller, and less crowded than the spring at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. On the other hand, the spring itself is smaller, which means the monkeys are more crowded here. It’s also believed to be less hygienic. 

    Still, Yunokawa Onsen is a wonderful alternative, one that’s easily accessible from the Hakodate Airport. Ideally, you can stay at the spa for a few days, to relax and reap the healing properties of the spring water here.

    Accommodation is plentiful in the area, allowing visitors to choose between a Western-style hotel like the Imagine Hotel & Resort, or a traditional Japanese ryokan like Ryokan Ichinomatsu.

    While there are other options for seeing Snow Monkeys in their natural habitat, like the Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama, Yunokawa Onsen and the Jigokudani Park are the only snow monkey onsen in Japan.

      

     

     

     

     

      

     

     

     

     

    5 Rules for an Enjoyable & Safe Onsen Visit

    One last thing before you start packing your bags – before you visit a snow monkey onsen, here’s some rules to bear in mind, as you go.

    Rule #1: Dress appropriately.

    Be aware that temperatures can drop as low as -15C degrees in winter. A visit to the snow monkey onsen implies you’ll be standing still, watching the monkeys, so make sure you dress warm. Same goes for early spring and late autumn, when temperatures can also get quite chilly.

    Rule #2: Pick good walking shoes.

    Since there’s no transport directly to the onsen, be prepared to be walking for a good few minutes (on average, a visit to the park will mean 2-3 hours of walking around). That being said, make sure you wear good, comfortable walking shoes. Also, focus on anti-slip shoes, since the trail to the onsen can get quite slippery.

    Rule #3: Don’t try to rile up the monkeys.

    While the Macaques have long grown accustomed to the presence of humans, it’s best not to try and rile them up. Act as you would normally, try to avoid loud noises or sudden movements. And most importantly, don’t try to touch or interact with the monkeys, as this may provoke them.

    Rule #4: Do not leave personal belongings near the spring.

    Whether you’re simply observing, or bathing with the primates at the Korakukan Onsen, it’s recommended not to leave personal items on the side of the hot water spring. The monkeys will take them.

    Rule #5: Eat before.

    Since it’s forbidden to bring food into the resort, as this may rile up the monkeys, it’d be best to eat beforehand. Keep in mind that you’ll be doing some serious walking, so it’s good to get some strength.

    A couple enjoying an onsen

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    Nearby Attractions Worth Checking Out

    You can take a day-trip and spend a few hours in the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park itself. Or you can spend a few days up there, and take this opportunity to also explore the nearby area.

    • Winter sports in the SHIGA KOGEN SKI RESORT – if you’re a winter sports fan, and are traveling anywhere from November to May, it’s worth checking out the Shiga Kogen Ski Resorts.
    • Explore a traditional onsen town – because the onsen tradition is old and well-documented in Japan, there are still many towns dedicated to healing waters today. Near the Park, you’ve got Shibu and Yudanaka, both traditional, very old onsen towns (a little like a town-size spa).
    • Hike through the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park – both the Shiga Kogen mountain, and the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park are located inside the larger Joshinetsu Kogen National Park (the third largest national park in the country). So if you’re feeling adventurous, take a hike through the national park, and take in the stunning alpine flora and fauna.
    • Visit Obuse – this small, historic town is situated just a short train ride away from Yudanaka Station. It is known for its local sake, and its chestnut confectionery shops.
    • Meditate at the Zenko-Ji Temple – last but not least, this temple, situated in the heart of Nagano City, dates all the way back to 642. It’s one of the oldest and most interesting Buddhist temples in Japan. A short walk from the main Nagano Station, visitors are encouraged to wander up the “Pilgrim’s Path”, to access this beautiful temple.

    Final thoughts

    Whether you're planning a city-getaway or a cross country tour across Japan, visiting a monkey onsen should definitely make your list! Keep in mind there are a bunch of other wonderful activities nearby and plan accordingly!

    If you want to dive a little further into the culture, this might be the perfect time to learn about the difference between kimono and yukata! Read the Ultimate Guide to Yukata vs. Kimono here!

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