Japan 2015, Episode 7: How Haley Went Bananas

Read in one way, the title describes an event that actually happened the second your author was born. Read another way, the title alludes to one of the most exciting journeys one can take in Japan: visiting the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Yaen Koen (Snow Monkey Park)!

Now, while the term jigokudani technically translates to “hell valley”, I assure you that the monkey park is anything but. The park contains several man-made onset (hot springs) against an otherwise natural, mountain setting and is inhabited by upwards of a hundred Japanese macaques. Babies, mothers, and alpha males can be witnessed wrestling, scavenging for food, washing each other, and picking out each others’ skin mites for viewers’ enjoyment. It’s no doubt an exciting scene, and one that cannot be witnessed anywhere else.
Pictures and videos definitely do this park better justice than my words; see below for the breathtaking iPhonegraphy I managed during my visit.
The key to the kingdom.
View of the Alps from the train.
Almost there!
The panoramic section of the train is simply awesome.

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Now, if this post has helped you fall in love with the monkeys and you’re as dead set as I was about visiting them, you’ll need to know some access logistics. Like many things worth seeing in Japan, this is not easy to get to. The best way to access the park is to start at Nagano Dentetsu (“Nagaden”) station right below Nagano (JR) Station. At Nagaden Station, pick up the “Monkey Park One Day Pass”, which currently is priced at 29 yen – quite a steal. This pass gives you unlimited access to Nagaden trains and buses as well as admission to the monkey park. All time tables for trains and buses are listed on the pass, which greatly ameliorates any stress to be had about getting to and from the park.
You are going to have to take the Nagaden line to Yudanaka Station, then a bus from Yudanaka Station to Kanbayashi Onsen. From there, it is a 30-40 minute walk to the monkeys through a pleasant, mostly flat hiking path.
All in all, visiting the monkeys was my primary activity on Monday, leaving with with time and energy to do little more than wander the new Midori department store within Nagano station. Especially if you try and do things around the monkey park (there’s not much, but there is a lovely cafe called Enza with great ramen and coffee!), this is probably going to take up most of your day.
A few other points:
  • Fortunately, it was not at all cold when I went (it probably hovered around the high forties/low fifties Fahrenheit). Unfortunately, late March is not the prettiest time to see the park, as snow is only really left in patches by this time. Per inquiry of everyone around me, the best time to go to the monkey park is in January and February. You might lose your nose at the cost of frostbite, but you’ll see some breathtaking views, no doubt.
  • The park was fairly crowded at the time I went (I made it in around 1:00 pm). Coming from Matsumoto and being an awful morning person, I was at a bit of a disadvantage to get there early. However, the park opens at 8:30 and if you’re staying in Nagano, you can definitely manage to get there by then if you leave early enough.
  • Unfortunately, you cannot touch or hold the monkeys. This, however, does not diminish the amazing time you will have with them.
This is truly an experience deserving of its own entry that also needs to be explored in person.  If you come to Japan, consider this to be on my “must do” list!
Stay tuned for Episode 8, where I channel my inner Thoreau and head to one of Japan’s most beloved woodland retreats!
– H

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