Blossom and Mt. Fuji, the most photographed icons of Japan. For me, close to that comes another Japanese image: a bathing monkey with snow on top of his cute little head, who has such a satisfied grim on his face. Do you know that photo? Meet the snow monkeys of Jigokudani Yaen-Koen Snow Monkey Park, located in the mountains of Nagano prefecture.
After at least 15 years of wishing and wanting, I finally planned my trip to Japan this year (2018). The postponing is over! And for sure you’ll be going to hear about it as I plan to write plenty of blogs about it! One of the things I had on my to-do list for Japan was to visit the snow monkeys. A bit of a detour if you look at the map, but I was determined to see them for real. Just look how cute they are!
Should you plan a visit to the Jigokudani Yaen-Koen Snow Monkey Park, you might like to know in advance the following:
- Wear your hiking shoes as the track can get pretty slippery from the waterfalls crossing the path.
- At the beginning of the walking track there is a gift shop where you can rent boots, buy new socks, store luggage, etc.
- The walking path is only steep in the first 50 meters and close to the monkeys, walking up to the ticket office. Very doable for 95% of healthy people.
- The desk to buy a ticket will only come at the very last part of the track, about 100 meters before you’ll see the monkeys bathe. Tickets for adults are 800 YEN.
- Toilets are located at ENZA Café near the parking lot and at the ticket desk (100m from the monkeys).
- Respect the rules please. For example: no drones allowed, do not take any food with you and do not leave any garbage behind in the park.
- There are two human spas very close to the monkeys, open to the public: Shibu Spa and Kanbayashi Spa.
When to go
The ever-lasting dilemma of planning a trip: when to go? It’s simply not possible to put all the highlights under ideal circumstances in one trip, unless you have at least a year or more. Damn it. That means compromise, something not a lot of people like to do, including me.
The snow monkeys – the name leaves no surprise – are best to watch in winter, when snow falls and temperatures drops below freezing point. December till February for sure. As the air temperature gets lower, the water gets most attractive for the monkeys to bathe in. Fun to watch!
Would you like to see the blossoms AND the snow monkeys in the same trip to Japan? Then you’ll have to set priorities and compromise, or do magic. The blossoms bloom roughly from the end of March till the end of April, strongly depending per region. Blossoms are as unpredictable as the exact weather conditions and highly influence one another. Snow can still fall in March. Blossom can come out early or late. Set your priorities and fingers crossed. More about my hunt for blossoms in a next blog post.
Was it worth it? Yes I think so. It is fun to watch the monkeys and you can easily spend 1-2 hours here. Of course, with some snow on top of their cute, naughty, little heads it would have been perfect. But life never really is, is it? Always something to wish for. Enjoy the moment!
What made it a success for me was the combination with a local onsen. After a 12 hour flight I liked being in nature and relax a bit. At that particular moment rather than straight to sightseeing in crazy Tokyo. First relax and nature, then I can better handle and enjoy the craziness of the big city. However, it is kind of a journey to reach this remote place (see How to get there). Decide for yourself what works best for you.
Are the snow monkeys an absolute must do in Japan? It depends. When the time is right it should be perfect (see When to go). Out of the snow season, visiting the Snow Monkey Park is definitely a ‘nice thing to do’. Sometimes I wondered, observing the monkeys’ faces, what they think of us, the visitors? Not sure if the monkeys like all the visitors that much. Since it can get a bit crowded around the pool at peak times.
Where to stay
You can visit the snow monkey park as a day trip from Tokyo or Nagano. Even better: spend the night at Yudanaka (Yamanouchi) before traveling further. I stayed at a traditional ryokan with onsen called Yudanaka Yumoto. A lovely place with a very friendly owner who picks you up from the station, drops you off at the snow monkey park and picks you up again, without any extra charge!
After the authentic Japanese dinner at Yudanaka Yumoto I decided to soak in the hot onsen bath outside in the Japanese garden, right under the stars. I slept like a baby in the traditional Japanese bed room that night. Highly recommended!
How to get there
From Narita airport (Tokyo):
Once in the arrivals hall (T2), follow the Railway signs. On the way to the train tracks you will run into (in chronological order):
- 7 Eleven ATM (just after Tourist Information)
- Lawson (food and drinks) and a pharmacy
- JR East service office (pick up pre-paid JR train pass)
To learn more about traveling by train in Japan with the JR Pass, check out my earlier blog The 10 things you need to know about the JR Pass.
Once you have your JR Pass (and train tickets) go to the track and find the cabin and seat reserved for you. The platform floor is marked with cabin numbers; the train will stop right in front. The journey between getting off the airplane into the first train took me about 1.5 hours. The JR Narita Express train to Tokio Station takes about 56 min.
From Tokio Station:
Follow the Shinkanshen signs and take the Asama 609 (Hokuriku line). This bullet train will take you to Nagano in 1 hour 44 min.
From Nagano station:
Get out of the Shinkanshen/JR part of the station by passing the green gates. Turn right and go straight ahead, following yellow sign ‘Dentetsu’ (line) all the way up to the end of the station (±200m). Go right down the stairs and exit the main station. Go under the big blue sign ‘Nagano Dentetsu line’, down the stairs and turn left. Buy a ticket at the small desk or machine (1260 YEN). Unfortunately the JR Pass is not valid on this local express train (red/white, track 2). The ride takes about 44 min and Yudanaka is the last station of this train.
From Yudanaka station:
Take a taxi or ask your accommodation host to pick you up and bring you to the Snow Monkey Park. The car ride from Yudanaka Station to the Snow Monkey Park takes 15-20 min.
Any driver will drop you off at Yaenkoen Parking lot at the Kanbayasi onsen area and ENZA Café. Start the walk at the souvenir shop. You will reach the ticket booth after about a 15 min walk. The pool where the monkeys hang out is about a 5 min walk further. In total the walk between the parking lot and souvenir shop to the monkey pool takes about 20 min (<2km).
Prefer to join a group, want to avoid the hazzle of public transport and looking for a worry-free day trip? Then you could consider one of these tours:
- 1-Day Tour in Nagano: Snow Monkeys, Zenkohji Temple and Sake
- 1-Day trip to Snow Monkey Park from JR Tokyo, Ueno, or Omiya Station
- 1-day Snow Monkey and Cherry Blossom Tour in Nagano (Spring)
- 1-day Snow Monkey and Cycling Tour in Nagano
Interested to read more about Japan? Check out the Japan Blog Archives.
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