Monkeying Around in Japan

We were fortunate during our latest trip to Japan to take a day trip to the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yamanouchi, Shimotakai District, Nagano Prefecture, Japan. (Wow, that's a mouth full!)  While they are called "snow monkeys" for us they were more like mud monkeys because, sadly, there was no snow. 

The story, as it was told to us by our very chatty California born guide, is essentially this. Many years ago, perhaps late 1800's early 1900's, someone built a lodge up in the mountains of this area to take advantage of the beautiful Onsens. (An Onsen is a naturally occurring hot spring and these are very popular places for the Japanese to go to be rejuvenated.) Once the lodge was built, hot water from nearby hot springs was pumped in through a maze of pipes to create the idilic Onsen up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere.

People who would visit would need to be rather fit as it's quite a hike and at a bit of a steep pitch, but it is a very beautiful area so I can understand the pull. At any rate, as time went on, local tribes of Monkeys started to become attracted to the warm pipes. So during winter months would come out from the densely wooded areas to find the pipes and warm up. Slowly but surely they were able to follow the paths of the pipes to the pools near the lodge. 

In the beginning both human and monkey were rather curious about one another. Through the years they got closer and closer until finally the monkeys started to share the Onsens with the people. As word spread of this oddity, more and more people would travel to the lodge to see what in the world all of this Monkey business was about. As one can imagine, over time it started to become a bit over crowded with both human and Monkey. 

Then the cute Monkeys became a nuisance. Nobody was really sure what should be done about it. The first thing they did was to build a second Onsen further away from the lodge just for the Monkeys. It took a generation or two to get them to finally figure it out but soon the Monkeys had their watering hole and the people had another. They also began strict rules about feeding the Monkeys. (By not feeding them they stayed to themselves and were a little less combative with the humans). But over time even that became a bit much so they created the Jigokudani Monkey Park. 

The Park is not a park in the way we know them. The Monkeys, when they are in and around the pool, are protected. Park rangers put out some grains a few times a day to feed them, but that is about the extent of the human intervention. The Monkeys will come out of their own habitats in the afternoon to go have a soak and then return to their homes in the evening. During the warmer months they stay away from the springs. 

Someone around the park must be watching and keeping track because someone knows the counts and they are in the know of who the Alpha is at any given time, but most of that information is in Japanese and, well, that's not a language I am familiar with. 

Whether you are into wildlife or history of parks or not, I would recommend a side trip to see the Monkeys if you are ever in the neighborhood. It's quite extraordinary how they just do their thing and pay no mind to the looky-loos and the camera bugs. And while it is a bit on the stinky side, it is manageable for the over the top cuteness of it all (except when they fight . . . not so cute.)