Jigokudani Yaen-Koen (“Hell Valley”, 地獄谷野猿公苑) remains fairly remote & uncrowded, even though it is now quite well-known as “The Monkey Onsen.” Entry fee of ¥800: worth it.
The monkeys habitually frequent this valley in winter months (late October to early November until late March to early April), spending the daylight hours in & around the onsen pools and Yokoyu River; still likely to be around in warmer weather. The path for visitors takes you right through their habitat. Don’t rush—the monkeys, although wild, are quite used to humans and carry on with their day to day routine regardless.
Photographers and outdoorsy types can enjoy getting in very close proximity to wild monkeys—Japanese Macaques, short-tailed and red-faced (more pronounced in mating season). Life expectancy for these monkeys is about 30 years and a band can be comprised of about 250 members in a very structured and hierarchical social system. The photo exhibit next to the ticket office will help you identify the current pecking order.
About a quarter of a mile from the monkey park proper is an old wooden ryokan (“Korakukan” tel. 0269-33-4376) with a rotemburo (outdoor bath) where you are on display to hikers along the path on the other side of the ravine! Shy? There are also indoor pools or you get brave when it’s dark.
Enjoy your communion with our genetic cousins more by paying attention to a couple of simple does and don’ts:
- Don’t stare at them; this can be threatening to the monkeys. Using a camera, strangely enough, avoids this problem. Do take plenty of pictures; flashes don’t seem to worry them.
- Don’t try to touch them; they will scratch/bite. You don’t want to spend the rest of the day at the hospital, do you? Yes, they look cuddly. So did Chucky.
- Don’t feed them (or yourself). Don’t carry food in your pockets either—they’ll sniff it out. The rangers here do feed the monkeys, but not much and infrequently so that they don’t become dependent. It also helps them keep healthy, supplementing their rather sparse winter diet.
- No pets.
- Don’t even think about getting in the hot pools with the monkeys. For a start, the water’s about 50 degrees, and the floaty things aren’t pinecones.
At an elevation of 850 meters, you access the valley by a 2-km winding footpath (wear good shoes) from the car park. Be warned: the road from Shibu Onsen gets to within a 10–15 minute walk from the monkey park; however, the road is closed in winter. It’s very narrow and in winter, icy. You must have studless (winter) tires and likely chains as well. You can walk the 2 km or so from the last bus stop (see below) along the road in about 45 minutes. Wrap up well in winter.
Starting your journey from Matsumoto? Give this trip a whole day to accomplish. If you have time, consider staying over at one of the many local ryokan to soak up the real atmosphere of this secluded destination. Book ahead.
- Getting to Nagano by train will take you about an hour and then the Nagano Dentetsu/Nagaden Line – 45 mins, ¥1,260 to Yudanaka. (In Nagano Station, you need to leave the JR part and find the Nagaden Line underground by following the signs) Then, from Yudanaka Station to Kanbayashi Onsen by bus (15 minutes, ¥210), from where you can reach the park in a 30-minute walk along a walking trail.
* See here for more detailed and up-to-date information.
- Taking a car would allow you to tie in a few other local “must-sees,” such as the WWII tunnels of Matsushiro, a hot spring or two in Yudanaka or Shibu, the fabulous scenery, skiing in Shiga Kogen, etc. Head north from Matsumoto along the Chuo Expressway (you can take R19 if you really want to kill the day!) past Nagano, to Shinshu Nakano Interchange. From there, take R292 towards Yamanouchi-machi. You’ll see the signs for Jigukudani Onsen pointing off to the left after about 20 minutes, but more likely you’ll recognize pictures of monkeys looking cheerful with an arrow!