We’d been skiing in Hakuba for over a week when we decided to have a rest and visit the Jigokudani Snow Monkeys in their natural habitat. It was something my kids and I were super excited to do, ever since we’d seen photos of them bathing in the hot thermal pools in the snow covered mountains in Japan.
There was a tour that would pick you up from your hotel and take you to the site where the Monkeys bathed, but I’m not big on organised trips just so you can tick it off the bucket list. For me the enjoyment comes from being able to use all my senses to really engage with such an amazing experience and to choose how much time we spend with these furry wild creatures. From Hakuba we caught the train to Nagano, and then a local bus which dropped us off at the bottom of the Valley of the Yokoyu River in the Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park. This area is known as Hell’s Valley. The bus takes about 40 minutes from Nagano and the stop is Kanbayashi Onsen. The line is Yudanaka-Kanbayashi.
From there we hiked through the cedar forest up the side of the river. This was such a magical experience walking through the freshly groomed snow track up to almost the top of the mountain where we witnessed the bathing monkeys. It’s funny, they say that until you see something foreign that you’ve never seen before, you can often not realise it’s there, and this was definitely the case on this occasion.
We all searched the whole way up the mountain walk, which took us about 40 minutes but none of us saw any monkeys. We could sometimes hear noises, in the trees and the rustling of leaves amongst the silence of the forest, but none of us saw any monkeys until we entered the area where the monkeys were bathing. Just as we entered the area near the pools my children who were then about 6 and 7 both questioned what was happening when two monkeys engaged in sex. Nothing like a quick sex education class on the way babies are made! When we arrived we were the only people there and the guides explained the rules of being in the area. It was important not to look directly at the monkeys, and to remain still when they engaged in any fights and to keep your eyes lowered.
There was a man with a long stick in his hand to fend off the monkeys, in case of any issues. Within minutes we were completely absorbed by these intense and close, family oriented monkeys. Watching them bathe and care for each other with such love and compassion was incredibly engaging. They were so human like in their behaviours, and their expressions of total relaxation and enjoyment in the moment created an immediate connection to them and we were fascinated to understand more about these Snow Monkeys. Then suddenly, almost all the monkeys dashed from the pools and scattered in different directions into the forest. And within seconds a large male came racing down to a lower pool grunting and making noises and attacked another male.
They screeched and jumped from pool to pool, claws outstretched and lashing and snarling at each other. The few monkeys that had remained had now all disappeared. We stood still like statues, with our heads lowered and eyes glued to the movements of the fighting monkeys, our hearts racing, and hoping that they wouldn’t take any notice of us. Some others joined in to fight, but would cower away once bitten or scratched. Blood ran down the side of one of the monkeys and after about what seemed like 10 minutes but was probably only 5 minutes, the most injured monkey left, and within another 5 minutes, all the monkeys had returned and were once again bathing peacefully in the pools. The law of the jungle prevailed!
It was fascinating to see the similarities in behaviour that we humans have with these monkeys. The baby monkeys were so incredibly cheeky and cute. Watching them swing from branches and playing with the innocence and joy young human children do, and seeing the parents keeping an eye on them, giving them direction and the odd reprimand if they got out of line made me realise the incredible similarities we share. Love, connection, family, community and harmony are just some of the values that are as important to these monkeys, as they are to human beings.
Watching the enjoyment and relaxation on the faces of the bathing monkeys, and the intensity, concentration and loving care that one monkey would give to the other when cleaning them, kept us mesmerised for almost 4 hours. We would have stayed longer, but we were almost frozen, even though we’d rugged up in all our winter gear.
We were completely overwhelmed with our new connection and fascination of these creatures, and as we walked back down the mountain, to our surprise, we saw many monkeys in the distance swinging from the trees, and chasing each other. We had learnt to see them amongst the forest and to recognise their movements and noises.
This fascinating and unique experience brings a smile to my face every time I think about those mostly peaceful snow monkeys , and I feel such gratitude for having been able to get so close to nature and experience those beautiful Snow Monkeys in their natural habitat in this magnificent part of Japan.
By Susan Tong