Jigokudani: Hell for humans, but paradise for monkeys

Adorning the Japan’s Nagano province, Yamanouchi’s Jigokudani Monkey Park is the home of many wild Macaques that are known as Snow Monkeys. Stretching in the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park also known as Shigakogen in the Yokoyu river’s valley, Jigokudani literally means the ‘Valley of Hell and is named so because of the boiling water underneath spurting hot steam from the small crevices flanked by sheer cliffs and hostile as well as cold forests. This is true despite the fact that this is a frozen landscape as the heavy snows layers the land for four months. Further, even though it is much famous, not much crowd is seen here because of its boiling waters underground, altitude of 850 meters, and a narrow unsafe path of 2 kilometer passing via the jungle. Additionally, Jigokudani is situated above the Noboribetsu Onsen town, which boasts volcanic activities such as sulfurous streams.

The snow monkeys come in the valley only by descending the cliffs for relaxing in the onsen’s warm waters (hot springs) in winters, while in summers they roam in the national park. However, spotting these celebrated snow monkeys is not that easy in reality. Their innate homes are in the deep Nagano mountains, which call for a difficult excursion. Your journey starts from Tokyo from where you catch a bullet train to reach Nagano in 1.5 hours after which an additional over 60 minutes time to be passed on via a shaky line, bus ride, and a hike of 1 mile to the snowy mountain trail. But, still tourists come here to amaze at the human habit of the monkeys to ascend to the hot springs in the Monkey Park.

Do not be under the impression that the Jigokudani Monkey Park is a zoo, as you will not find any walls or cages. On the name of facilities, there is a visitor’s center and a stone bathtub over a hot spring not meant for humans. The monkeys commute from the snowy mountains somewhere around in the morning at 9 to find snacks and warmth in tub. At 4 in the evening, they return back. The best part is that neither the monkey nor the park goes on a holiday. You can see these young monkeys following one another as well as playing tag games rapidly inviting a scene of wrestling matches. Coming to the bathtub, it is a comprehensive relaxation zone with no fights permitted. Spot here for the alpha male who is called Dragon King sleeping delightfully in the bath.

You have two ways to be close with these snow monkeys – either walk for 10 minutes or for half an hour via the narrow trail passing via the jungles. The former is the job of only fit bodies as the track is very slippery as well as icy in many sections. The Snow Monkey Minibus can take you close to these monkeys, as it has permission to do so. It includes a walk of 10 minutes. Do book your tickets in advance. If you catch a public bus at the station called Nagano Dentetsu Yudanaka, it will drop you at the car parking section from where you need to walk for 30 minutes. On your trip, kindly take care of two things – Never touch these monkeys or pet them and avoid staring or showing your teeth via any actions such as a smile, as that will aggravate the monkeys.

Take up any of the charming trails from the valley passing via the wooded hills for reaching Oyunuma in 20 to 30 minutes. With a temperature of 50 degrees Celsius, this is a sulfurous pond from where the Oyunumagawa river flows that is hot. Passing via the jungle, the river is thronged by the tourists to have a foot bath and enjoy an incredible sight. Colors are added by the autumn that is at its pinnacle in mid October.

Note: A few walking trails in winter nestling in the wooded hills towering over Jigokudani might be closed.