How to visit the Japanese snow monkeys
Visiting the famous Japanese snow monkeys is usually somewhere near the top of anyone's bucket list when travelling to Japan. We've all see footage of them, bright pink faces blissfully thrown back amongst rising steam as they relax in natural hot springs. Adorable!
While we were planning our trip to Japan in January 2020, we really wanted to visit Jigokudani Yaen-koen (the "Monkey Park" where the cozy critters live) but there wasn't much information about how to get there. So here you are - a handy guide for how to visit the Japanese snow monkeys.
How to get there:
Jigokudani Yaen-koen is in Yamanouchi, Nagano prefecture, and close to Yudanaka. It's an easy day trip from Nagano, and is even doable in one mad day from Tokyo, but we would recommend staying in one of the nearby onsen towns the night before so that you can go first thing in the morning when there are significantly less tourists.
Take the Hokuriku-Shinkansen train to Nagano Station (About 1 hour 20) and find the Nagano-Dentetsu line (NB this is not a JR line so you if you've been using a Japan Rail pass on your travels you'll need to buy a seperate ticket at the desk near the Nagano - Dentetsu ticket barriers).
From here you have two options, the Monkey Express train or the local one, to Yudanaka. We chose the local train - it's 30 minutes slower (and a little cheaper) but it was really interesting to stop at all the small mountain farming communities as the train wound its way through incredible scenery!
This train goes to Yudanaka station, and from here it's about a 3 mile walk to Jigokudani, so we'd recommend getting a taxi or a local bus.
Alternatively, you could take the shinkansen to Nagano and then the bus listed below:
Either take the Nagano- Dentetsu train mentioned above, or the quickest route is to catch the Nagaden Express Bus (about 40 minutes) directly to the Snow Monkey Park bus stop, which is in the car park for the Roman Museum. From here it's a short walk round the corner to the Monkey Park gift shop and the entrance to the forest trail that leads to the snow monkeys.
On our trip we did a bit of both transport options - the Shinkansen/Nagano Dentetsu line to Yudanaka on the way there, and then the bus back to Nagano as this saved us making our way all the way back to Yudanaka station after visiting the monkeys.
Driving: if you have access to a car on your Japan trip you could also choose to drive yourself to the Monkey Park. It's about 170 miles (3.5 hours) from Tokyo, or about 20 miles (55 mins) from Nagano.
Jigokudani is open every day. Hours are 09:00 - 16:00 in winter (Nov - Mar) and 08:30 - 17:00 in summer. Tickets cost ¥800 for adults and ¥400 for children aged 6+.
For your best chances of seeing the snow monkeys, visit Jigokudani Yaen-koen in winter. The macaques use the hot springs to keep warm, and in summer weather are more likely to be up in the mountains looking for food than bathing. We would also recommend arriving as soon as the park opens, as once the buses from Nagano start arriving it gets very crowded!
From the entrance by the gift shop, it's about a half hour walk through beautiful pine forest to reach the ticketing office and the Monkeys' onsen area. Wrap up warm and wear good walking shoes as the path can get slippery if it is icy.
Absolutely no food is allowed in the monkey park - these animals are free roaming and wild, and there are no fences to keep them from approaching you, so leave your bags in the lockers located by the ticket office. There is also an information centre and a toilet here.
Once you're in, head to the steaming onsen pool in front of you and enjoy watching the snow monkeys relaxing, grooming and playing. Please remember to not touch the monkeys, tempting as it is. They look fluffy and often pass very close to you, but they are wild and need to remain so.
Visit an onsen yourself
To make the most of your time up here, why not spend a night at one of the traditional ryokan hotels in a nearby onsen town, like Shibu Onsen? Rooms are typically beautiful, like stepping back in time: futon beds on the tatami mat floor, a yukata robe to wear as you explore the narrow cobbled streets, and you'll also get access to the nine public onsens in the town. Yes, you'll need to get naked, but don't worry! You can find our Beginner's guide to Onsen Etiquette here.
Spending the night locally also means you can be at the monkey park as soon as it opens. Your ryokan will often provide transport to get you there bright and early, dodging the crowds.
A few final facts:
The Snow Monkeys are actually Japanese Macaques, a species of primate native to northern Japan.
The word Jigokudani translates as "Hell's Valley" because of the volcanic geothermal steam.
The Monkey Park was created in 1964 to provide a protected space for the macaques after their habitat was being destroyed to create ski resorts, forcing the monkeys into nearby towns where they were seen as pests.
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