There is only one species of monkey that inhabits Japan. It is the Japanese macaque. This adorable cream colored monkey has a nice thick furry coat to keep it warm through the winter, as they live up in the mountains of Japan. They also have red faces, that grow redder during mating season. You may have heard of them as the ‘Snow Monkeys’.
In Nagano, you can visit them as they catch a reprieve from the bitter mountain cold in the hot onsen at Jigokudani Park. We were intending to go there, and in fact, this was our entire reason for visiting Japan in winter. But because of my stomach issues, we weren’t able to make the trip from Tokyo.
If you want to go though, there is a Shinkansen (bullet) train from Tokyo that will get you to Nagano in just 105 minutes – man I wish we had those here in the US! Of course once you get to Nagano, it gets a bit trickier, so you may want to get some help at the Information Center located at the Nagano Train Station (they speak English). You’ll need to take a bus (I believe the Shiga-Kogen line of the Nagaden Bus) from Nagano Station to Nagano Dentetsu Station. Then from there you can either take a nice long walk or grab a taxi to the Jigokudani Parking area. Then of course there’s the hike up the mountain to see the monkeys!
They have a live video feed you can see on line (http://www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/livecam/monkey/). I shouldn’t have, but I looked at the feed the day we were supposed to go and the night before they had gotten about 3-4 feet of beautiful new powdery snow. It was absolutely gorgeous and would have made for the most amazing photos. Ah well, you say. Another time.
Don’t feel too bad for me. Although I didn’t get to see the macaques in the onsen in Nagano, I still experienced the Japanese macaques first hand – albeit by complete accident. If your time in Japan is limited, or you just don’t feel like trekking all the way out to Nagano, you can still see these adorable little primates if you are in the Kyoto area!
Since we were planning on going to Nagano to see the snow monkeys, when I asked my husband if he wanted to go to Arashiyama Monkey Park one morning during our stay in Kyoto, he of course said no (much to my disappointment, being the type of person who can’t get enough of any kind of animal anywhere – just wait till I write about Malta!). So we made plans to do something more towards the center of the city, as the Arashiyama District is on the outskirts of the city, and hopped on what we thought was the right JR train. And it would have been – had it not been the express train. So when we finally got off the train and figured out where we were, darned if we weren’t at Arashiyama!
Luckily, I had a whole day planned for this area, including the Monkey Park, a nice boat ride up the river, the bamboo forest, and a temple. So we adjusted our plans once again and just let the wind (or rather, train) take us where it may.
First things first, we headed straight for the Arashiyama Monkey Park. Since the train station had giant maps of the whole area just outside, it was easy to figure out where to go. Just find the river and follow it to the Togetsukyo bridge. It was such an awe inspiring scene. Here was this shimmering river, at the very foot of these low mountains covered in all shades of green, and a long bridge spanning the wide river. It was amazing – everyone crossed in the same direction. They crossed towards the mountain on the left, and away from the mountain on the right. We only saw one couple going against the flow. So orderly!
After you cross the bridge, you turn right, and the entrance to the monkey park is just up on the left. We climbed the first set of stairs to a shrine and bought our tickets (550¥ each). But while waiting for my husband to get the tickets, chaos erupted from the river below. My husband came over and we watched as about 15 young men stood thigh-high in the frigid river water practicing their karate. Talk about discipline! I would have dipped my toe in and been outta there!
So after our entertainment, we began our assent up the mountain. It was a long hike. I’m not sure if it was because I was starting to feel a little under the weather at this point, or whether it was because people with children kept whizzing by us, but I was really starting to feel old at this point!
We did finally reach the top however, after what was actually a very scenic and beautiful hike. And there they were – the Japanese macaques, in all their red-faced glory! I could have squealed with joy. All right, I may have squealed with joy. Fine. I squealed with joy. But it was so exciting! You had to be there to understand I guess, but there were these little red-faced monkeys everywhere! And babies too! I was overwhelmed with emotion, and so were the monkeys, as it turns out.
The Japanese macaques are so human-like in their emotions. You may see one monkey stalking off to be by himself. Or maybe another one yelling at the rest in anger.
Or perhaps a baby cautiously hoarding his food from his older siblings.
And then there are the babies curled up on their mama’s laps, sleeping through it all as their mama lovingly picks through their fur for bugs.
It is raw emotion at its best, and it is beautiful.
All this raw emotion can lead to tiffs between the 6 monkey bosses and the other monkeys (there 144 there one of the keepers told us). But never fear, there are workers there who are on top of everything and keep the monkeys from misbehaving. One girl was suddenly surprised by a monkey being near her (a monkey at a monkey park! Go figure), and began screaming hysterically, flailing her arms. So the monkey did the same thing right back at her until one of the workers ran him off. I’m pretty sure she was American, but for embarassment’s sake, let’s just say she was from some other English-speaking country where they have New York accents.
As we left, my husband basically dragging me away, there was a playground for kids with an enormous slide. I opted for the slide, which, tall and steep as it was, did not go too fast, given all the mud and the fact that my tush barely fit its width. My husband took the stairs, waiting patiently at the bottom, shaking his head, and we continued our descent out of the park.
We thought about the boat ride, but it was really cold and humid, and quite frankly, seemed like an activity for our next trip to Japan…in warmer weather. Http://www.hozugawakudari.jp/en So we headed for the Bamboo Forest!
It was amazing. Bamboo taller than I’ve ever seen…in an unbelievable shade of blue-ish green, in a forest so expansive. A sea of bamboo as far as the eye can see. Truly amazing!
On one side of the Bamboo Forest, you will find an enormous temple call Tenryuji.
It is adorned with a gorgeously landscaped garden and pond filled to the brim with old koi fish. Founded in 1339, it is the largest temple in Arashiyama, and one of Kyoto’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Definitely worth the visit if you are in the area, if only to see the koi.
There is also another temple that you should definitely make an effort to see if you have the time and energy. It’s called Otagi Nenbutsuji. It is a ten minute walk north of a temple by a similar name, so easy to get confused and stop there. But keep going. You may want to rent a bike or even get a taxi to go there, as it is a ways out of the center of things. But if you take a bike, you can pass through the Saga Toriimoto Preserved Street, which has been preserved in the style of the Meiji Period, with many of the buildings being converted to cute shops and restaurants.
The Otagi Nenbutsuji has 1200 stone statues of rakan, or followers of Buddhism, each one bearing a unique expression on his face. These are new in relation to most things in Japan, made in the 1980’s-1990’s, but are still very impressive.
Before you go to Arashiyama, you can find a great map and a list of other sites to see at this website: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3912.html I found it extremely helpful all-around when planning our trip to Japan.
If you have any tips or would like to share your experience in Arashiyama, please do in the comments – we’d love to hear from you!
And until next time, may your travels bring you much happiness and enlightenment!