Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani

Visiting the snow monkeys of Jigokudani was the highlight of our trip to Japan at Chinese New Year. There are few places in the world where it's possible to experience wild animals up close in their natural environment without any concern of the well-being of the creatures or the destruction of nature, but this was my experience here.

The snow monkeys of Jigokudani are famous for their enjoyment of the natural hot springs in the area. They bask in the waters, groom each other and relax, enjoying a respite from chilly winter temperatures.

The wonderful thing about the snow monkeys is that they take absolutely no notice of human visitors. Due to the park's stringent rule that visitors must not feed the monkeys, they do not beg for food; and due to another strict rule that visitors should avoid looking the monkeys in the eyes, they also do not perceive humans as a threat. They are mostly oblivious to tourists watching them. At one point my son was resting his arm on a fence railing, and a monkey walked right over it without paying any attention to him at all.
It was heartening to see visitors behaving themselves and obeying the rules on the day we visited. Perhaps the trek to the site weeds out the more frivolous and uncaring. On the day that we visited the trail was extremely icy, and from memory it is at least a couple of kilometres long, so some dedication is required to make the journey. At the trailhead there is a shop selling cheap boots with soles that grip and gripping attachments you can fit to your own shoes. 

Many websites recommend visiting the snow monkeys either by driving there or catching the train to Jigokudani (the end of the line) and then the shuttle bus. There are local and express trains that go to Jigokudani. The express train costs a little extra (there's an extra ticket to buy at the machine) but saves time. We took the train and shuttle bus found this is not actually a good method if you're travelling from Nagano, the closest town.

Tourist information sites state that the shuttle bus timetable roughly coincides with the train times. This isn't the case. When you arrive at the station, you may have to wait 45 minutes or so for a bus, which takes only about ten minutes to drive to the trailhead. Returning to the train station by the shuttle bus, you may have to wait a similar amount of time for a train.

A much faster and more convenient option is to take the bus that leaves from outside Nagano station and goes directly to a bus stop close to the trail head. This bus takes about one hour, as I recall. This is the method we used to return to Nagano.

Living in Taiwan, part of the pleasure of visiting the snow monkeys was simply the snow.

We had wrapped up warm, so the cold was no problem, and we could enjoy the novelty of the powdery white stuff.
Sitting here in warm(ish), humid conditions, I can still remember the crisp, clean, dry air of Jigokudani. And the calm, serene snow monkeys.

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