If you are in for an adventure and love animals very much, you should consider visiting Nagano Prefecture, where you will find a secluded place called Jigokudani Park. It is a home for Japanese macaques, monkeys not much taller than 1’6″ (50 cm) and extremely vigorous jesters. They are however very intelligent individuals and act jointly inside a group. If this does not convince you, then let me inform you that they are also absolutely adorable.
Jigokudani is a place worth visiting any time of the year. Park is open 365 days of the year, from 8:30AM till 5:00PM between April and October and from 9:00AM till 4:00PM between November and March. One entry tickets cost 800 yen for adults and 400 yen for children, but you can even buy an annual pass to visit the park a limitless amount of times for a duration of one year (5,000 yen for adults, 2,500 yen for children). Park guide recommends you make some allowance in your time when visiting Jigokudani. That is because monkeys in there are wild animals and may not be always present. They can hide from rain or raging sun in areas less visible for park visitors.
Depending on the season attractions will differ. On colder days monkeys spend most of their time in their own hot spring. They are not very active, but park guests get a better chance to make a good photo. But do not fray, because these monkeys are not a type to let boredom take over. Cheeky and sneaky as they are, they still run at extreme speeds and play together. They can even make snowballs and play with them. Summer is the time they become even crazier and tend to be more interested in park guests too. Japanese macaques are very social animals, so if you stick to one monkey long enough, more are sure to come. Feeding or giving them any items however is prohibited. Their strenght exceeds the one of humans’, so even though they are not aggresive, do not try to get on their bad side.
Getting to Jigokudani from Nagano-shi, the Nagano Prefecture capital city, is not complicated. First, you need to get to Yudanaka Station, roughly 30 km (40 min) from Nagano-shi. From there you can take a bus from Yudanaka Station that will take you to Kambayashi Onsen in approximately 15 minutes, or take a 30 minute walk. I chose the latter during my trip, to be able to see the charming town of Yamanouchi. There are plenty of fairly priced restaurants with local specialties, such as soba, and even more hot spring places that go by a japanese name onsen. Not many tourists choose to walk from Yudanaka, so streets of Yamanouchi are usually empty. You will have plenty of time to take many pictures of the nearby river, onsen, rustic buildings, temples and surrounding forest.
From Kambayashi Onsen its 35 minutes on foot. Road goes slightly uphill, but it is not a tiring walk. Scenery changes into a deep forest where you will hear tweeting of birds. Jigokudani literally means Hell’s Valley, because of water geysers that spew water several meters up and which were believed to be controled by a demon.
Village you will encounter before entering the monkey park is small and old-fashioned. In there road will split into two paths; one leading to an onsen and a ryokan (small hostel) for travelers to use, and the second leading two Jigokudani Monkey Park. As you can see on the picture below, a sign with ‘Jigokudani Monkey park’, ‘bridg’ and ‘toiret’ will show you the correct way. Then it is only 3 minutes to the cashier in the monkey park.
Park’s one and only building has a toilet and a large souvenir shop with postcards, plushies, wooden figures, even monkey themed office accessories. Customers can also use lockers to keep their luggage locked. Remember that in order to rent a locker you need to have at least one 100 yen coin as a deposit. Park staff does not change money for you.
Finally, the monkey space. Park has three areas, one with the onsen, one close to the river and a bridge. As mentioned before, monkeys are pretty active and move around the place very often. If you wish to see all of them, I recommend checking every nook and cranny. Free guidebook in the souvenir store also has a list of every monkey in the park, their genders and ages.
Most foreign tourists start their Japanese adventure in Tokyo. Nagano Prefecture is not far from there, yet it offers totally different landscapes and attractions. Ticket for a day-time bus from Tokyo to Nagano-shi costs less than 3,000 yen and the drive is 4 hours. The shinkansen (bullet train) takes less than half of that time and costs 8,000 yen for a ticket. Jigokudani is a place worth visiting, unavailable for those staying in Japan’s largest cities. It will bring joy to children and adults too.