Part of the Joshin-Etsu Kogen National Park, Jigokudani Yaen-koen is in a small valley accessed from a gate close to the 1998 Nagano Olympics snowboard half-pipe venue in Shiga Kogen near Yudanaka Onsen. Despite becoming relatively famous since the early 1960’s, the valley (translated literally the characters for jigogudani mean “hell valley”) is still a remote and rarely crowded part of Nagano, and yet immensely popular amongst those with an affinity for winter landscapes, hot spring onsens, and in particular – snow monkeys.
This valley is a gem. The Yokoyu river flows down from the ski mecca of Shiga Kogen, and boiling water bubbles out of small crevasses in the frozen ground surrounded by steep cliffs and formidably cold and hostile forests.
Getting to Jigokudani is relatively difficult, as the environment is harsh with heavy snowfalls (snow covers the ground for 4 months a year), the elevation is around 850 meters (about 2790 feet), and the only way in along the narrow 2 kilometer long footpath through the forest. Public transport in these parts is a bit sporadic, your only real option being the bus company servicing the snow resorts of Shiga Kogen and Yudanaka Onsen. The bus timetable is pretty sparse, so if you are going to visit you would need to allocate the better part of a day, and ensure that you have the times of the descending buses written down so that you do not need to wait for too long at the bus stop (the weather up in these parts can change quickly for the worse).
The far easier option is to drive, especially if you want to fit in a full day of skiing, or an itinerary such as Zenkouji, Jigokudani, a good soak in one of the rotemburo in the Yudanaka Onsen area, as well as the amazing WWII tunnel complex at Matsushiro. Rent a car or try a discovery tour. To get to the start of the walk through the forest you will need either 4WD or snow chains, parking on the side of the road just below the entrance to the path. The road is often icy, so drive slowly and be conscious of both oncoming traffic and wildlife. Either way it is worth the visit. The isolation keeps most people away, and researchers, photographers and nature lovers can enjoy a proximity to wild monkeys enjoyed nowhere else.
The monkeys in this valley are Japanese macaques (one of the 22 species of monkeys in the genus Macaca), part of a group of primates whose habitat stretches from Japan through to northern Africa (only humans – genus Homo – are more widespread). This species is found on Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu having crossed from Asia via land bridges. The same species can be found on some of the larger islands (for example Awaji) of the inland sea. The monkeys of Yakushima island are different, but share a common ancestor. There have never been any monkeys in Hokkaido or other islands north of the Blakiston line, and the increasingly endangered monkeys of the Shimokita Peninsula (41° North) in Aomori prefecture in the far north of Honshu represent the northernmost distribution both of these macaques and all of the world’s monkey species (Gibraltar is 36° North). The snow monkeys are believed to have learned to adjust to the cold climate by gradually extending their habitat to the north. In fact in warmer areas such as Kyushu and southern Honshu, the monkeys are slightly taller, or as described by the rangers at Jigokudani, “more handsome”. From latitudes north of Aomori, the only representative primates are homo sapiens.
The Japanese macaque has a short tail usually no longer than 10 centimeters (4 inches). Their faces and rear have a red, ruby color that comes from the visibility of blood in the capillaries when seen through the skin. The redness is more pronounced during the mating season (autumn through to winter) and contrasts brilliantly with the white snow.
The snow monkeys only come to the valley during the winter, foraging elsewhere in the national park during the warmer months. In the mornings during the winter (in this terrain/altitude, winter is roughly late October/early November through to late March/early April) they descend from the forests to the warm waters of the onsens, and return to the security of the forests in the evenings. It is interesting that they continue this pattern, because their only natural predator in Japan – the wolf – is now believed to have been hunted to extinction. These days the only real threats to monkeys in Japan come from humans, both from shooting and from deforestation. Most of the monkeys shot are those that eat crops on farmland adjoining forests, though the root cause of the problem is loss of habitat and natural food sources. The habitat of the monkeys in Jigokudani is national park and thus to some extent protected, elsewhere it is not the case. Deaths and injuries due to motor vehicles, electrocution from power lines and other hazards also increasingly abound.
There are usually around 250 or so monkeys in total forming one group. These are extremely social animals, who pay close attention to age, strength, status, family links, seniority etc. It is possible through close observation over a period of time to identify many traits the monkeys have in common with humans. The monkeys form an extended family, with the “boss” performing a role similar to a tribal chieftain. Most of the fights for dominance between males are due to sexual rivalry and tests of strength. When you enter the valley it is a good idea to visit the exhibition of photographs (that are spectacular!) in the room more or less adjoining the ticket office, the reason being that it will allow you to identify the “boss” and several other “alpha male” macaques. The Japanese macaque has a natural lifespan of around 30 years. As of 2004, the oldest member of the group was 28, and the “boss” a 16 year male in his prime.
Apart from the warmth of the hot onsen bath, the main reason that the monkeys visit the valley is food supply. In spring the group eats kinoshinme and donguri (which are actually from autumn/fall – but as the monkeys don’t like the donguri in that season, they cover them with snow and leave them until the Spring thaw). During the summer months they forage in the forests eating tree bark and grass seeds, and in the autumn kuri, yamabudou, kinoko and nendo. They also eat a small quantity of insects such as grasshoppers. During the winter though, there is relatively little to eat other than tree bark and whatever can be gathered from beneath the heavy snow cover. The dense fur helps them conserve energy, and they have cheek pouches food can be temporarily stored before ingestion. In winter, the rangers feed the group a very small and irregular quantity of barley, soy beans or apples, which maintains the health of the group without encouraging dependency.
A few rules:
Under no circumstances attempt to touch, do not approach them too closely or quickly. Apart from the risk of a scratch (the scratch will probably result in an infection), an attempt to touch will be interpreted by the monkey as a threat and result in a bite.
Do not feed, eat in their presence, or make any gesture that indicates or hints of the presence of food. This includes chewing gum. These monkeys are wild animals and compared to us have a keen sense of smell, even the presence of food in your pockets (or the smell of cooking in your clothing) can/may be problem. It is best to leave any food you may have brought with you in the lockers near the ticket office.
Do not stare or make more than momentary eye contact. Maintain a reasonable distance at all times. Japanese macaques are highly socialized and have strong family relations and concepts of personal space. Looking into the eyes of the macaques can easily be interpreted by the monkey as an aggressive threat. As a general rule, if you find that eye contact has been established look away. For this reason the view finder of a video recorder can be extremely useful when observing the macaques, as they will not feel that you are closely observing them.
Do not under any circumstances bring a pet (dog/cat/whatever) into the valley. While the monkeys have become used to their human cousins hanging around, other species are a problem. Leave Fido at home.
Flash photography is not a problem. The monkeys do not seem to mind the attention – whether this is because of the light or because of boredom (these monkeys probably encounter more paparazzi per square inch than Hollywood starlets when its all said and done) isn’t clear. In the meantime though, click away. Video cameras are also good – apart from the movies, they provide a useful way of observing the faces of monkeys from close proximity.
The waters of the onsen are about 50 degrees celsius. It is not possible to bathe with the monkeys, though about 300-400 meters downstream from the onsen for monkeys there is a rotemburo for humans (there are quite a few rotemburo in the Yamanouchi-machi area). This rotemburo is part of the Korakukan Ryokan (tel: 0269-33-4376) which is an old but excellent wooden ryokan with steep narrow staircases and creaking floorboards. The food is also excellent, but the rooms a little cold. The rotemburo is visible to all day-trippers (if this bothers you bathe early or after dark, there are also hot baths inside the building), and the monkeys occasionally invite themselves down to visit. Please note that if you are in an onsen and a monkey approaches, that the same rules apply – do not touch them, gesture towards them nor approach too close.
For a warmer more modern & comfortable (alas also more expensive) ryokan, try the swank Senjukaku (tel: 0269-33-3551) about 800 meters from the entrance to the forest.
Entrance to the valley is a deliberately steep 500 yen per adult (250 for children), the proceeds going towards research, capital improvements (more environmentally friendly toilets etc) and conservation within the National Park. No self-respecting Japanese macaque is without a website – you can enjoy monkeycam at http://www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp
Jigokudani Yaen-koen can be accessed by train from JR Nagano Station. Take the Nagano Dentetsu train to Yudanaka. From Yudanaka, take a bus or taxi to Kanbayashi Onsen then it is about a 20 minute walk to the entrance of the Jigokudani Yaen-koen. From there it is about a 2 kilometer walk through the forest. If driving, get off the Joshinentsu Highway at Shinshu Nakano and take route 292 towards Shiga Kogen. Drive the road to Kanbayashi onsen then walk.
April to October 8:30am to 5:00pm / November to March 9:00am to 4:00pm
Adults 500 yen, children 250 yen
Yamanouchi-machi Shimotakai-gun Nagano Japan 381-0401
TEL: 0269-33-4379 / FAX: 0269-33-8521
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