If you’re planning on traveling to Nagano, odds are the Snow Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen-Koen) is one of the top places on your list to visit. Located in northern Nagano in Joshinetsu-Kogen (National Park) the monkey park has become one of the most famous spots in Nagano to explore.
One of the coolest things about this park is that it wasn’t built to be a tourist attraction at all. The nearby hot spring was having trouble with monkeys getting into the baths with the customers in the winter to stay warm. This wasn’t the safest or most hygienic situation for the human bathers, so in 1964 a hot spring was constructed for the monkeys about 300 meters away.
Access to the park requires a one mile walk on a dirt path through a dense forest. In the winter this path is packed with snow and ice, and in the wetter months it can get quite muddy. Be sure to plan your footwear and attire accordingly as there is no option to drive all the way to the entrance of the park.
Once you emerge from the forest, you’ll see a steep set of stairs that you must climb to the ticket counter, which leads into the park. The charge for adults is 500 yen (about $5) and the charge for children is 250 yen. Bring cash! No credit cards are accepted.
Around 160 Japanese Macaque now call the area surrounding the hot spring home. Though the park is open 365 days a year, the staff cannot predict when the monkeys will be gathering at the hot springs. Of course in the colder months more monkeys will actually be in the bath, but when we’ve been there in the summer there were more monkeys than we could count wandering around the grounds.
The park staff feeds the monkeys three times per day, so the odds of monkeys hanging out where you can see them is quite high no matter the time of year.
There is no barrier between the monkeys and the humans. Everyone is able to freely walk around. The monkeys are so used to the human presence that they will hardly pay attention to you at all, provided you keep a respectful distance. It is wise to pay attention to signs warning against trying to feed the monkeys, or putting your belongings too close to them. Monkeys are strong and fast.
If you find monkeys as fascinating as we do, you'll love Jigokudani Yaen-Koen. The surrounding area is beautiful as well. The nearest towns are Yudanaka Onsen and Shibu Onsen, both with significant charm. Shibu Onsen was a prime spot in the Edo Period for Samurai to come and bathe their wounds after battle. The winding street through town is lined with public hot spring baths, and you can see visitors walking to and from their Japanese in (ryokan) in their casual kimono (yukata).
The Snow Monkey Park is well worth a visit, and we think you'll find the area nearby just as worthy of your time. Don't hesitate to reach out if you'd like some help planning a trip to beautiful Nagano!