Up an entirely missable path to the side of a log cabin, we trot in single file. On either side of us snow banks rise up, emanating a dull blue world towards us, and it presses in on our uncovered skin. It’s a stark difference from the previously ploughed and sunny road we were walking on, almost as if the unexpected pathway signals the entrance to another world. Soon, the dirt smudged snow gives way to a pure white compact path, the shapes of many boots just discernible. All vestiges of the sunny road are gone.
This is the start of the Jigokudani Monkey Park. The pathway is a kilometre march through silent trees laden with snow, single file to let others pass. The attraction has always been popular but ever since National Geographic featured it in their Destinations of a Lifetime: 225 of the World’s Most Amazing Places attendance rates have sky rocketed, leading to a much needed boost in the park’s revenue. Usually, this would mean that the attraction would be packed and characterised by jostling for photo taking space, so I head in with guarded expectations.
Eventually the path opens up to reveal a collection of houses on our left, a beautiful mountainside view, from which I turned to discover a monkey stood on my right. He sat right next to the path, his feet turned sideways so that his toes could curl together, away from the compacted ice, his hands clasped into his belly. It looks around as if all of the humans in front of him where completely invisible, and he was the only creature there.
Continuing on we march up stacks of stone steps, careful not to slip, to arrive at the hut that signals the official start of the park (where you have to pay). It’s 800¥ to continue, a lesser fee than some special exhibitions in Tokyo, but I’m slightly distracted by the back of the onsen hotel. There are two open pools, in full view, where I can clearly see two men fresh as the day they were born. The onsen hotel they were staying in features unguarded pools so that visitors can bathe with the monkeys, if you get up early enough.
Once past the payment hut it turns out the park is actually quite small, and packed with monkeys. The park is narrow, long, and split by a stream. By descending steps you can go and watch the monkeys around the stream grooming and teasing each other. Continuing on brings you to a small pool, barred with a fence, where they dip in, and drink ,the steaming water.
There are a great many of them, and today the park is extremely busy with many visitors vying for photos. It seems when they get truly fed up of the humans they retreat to the other side of the stream, where we can’t follow. An option which has no doubt helped maintain their independence, and sense of freedom, in an open park.
Though the visit worked quite well as a pit stop on the way back from a skiing weekend in nearby Hakuba Ski Resort, I think the experience would have been a little more magical with a stay at the ‘Jigokudani Onsen Korakukan’ onsen hotel. Looking through visitor pictures it seems an altogether less bustled time and a relaxing experience can be had in the park that way. As it’s a traditional Ryokan experience in a unique location I may be tempted to try it out next winter.