When the baby monkey gazed up at me from the safe folds of her mother’s warm embrace, well, who wouldn’t melt?  Ever since seeing a report on TV about the red-faced Macaque monkeys enjoying the natural volcanic hot springs near Nagano, I had wanted to visit them. And now I was here, communing mutely with furry mother and child.

The story goes that an adventurous female monkey decided to go into the hot waters one winter.  Or maybe she fell in? After all, wet water is not a natural habitat for monkeys.  She must have communicated the pleasure of her experience to the others in her group because ever since then, these monkeys have been known to seek out the warm waters as a social hangout.  Grooming and dozing are their main activities.  When they have had enough, they come out, shake themselves and the dense fur quickly dries and insulates them against the cold.

The Jigokudani Yaen-Koen – which means Hell’s Valley – nature preserve was established in 1964 within the Joshin-Etsu Kogen National Park. The 200-300 monkeys living there are said to be wild, but this is a relative term: true, they are not caged and run around freely; however, they are fed by staff and have no fear of humans.  In fact, you have to watch your step as you may be in their way as they race up or down a pathway.  They are also very used to being photographed, with lenses and shutters practically popping in their faces a lot of the day. Nevertheless, they are wild animals and unpredictable, so a skirmish with a lot of screeching and chasing can and does break out occasionally. By and large, however, they are a peaceful lot and will leave you alone if you don’t encroach on their personal space.

There is no guarantee that the monkeys will be in onsen (hot springs).  But on  the day I visited it was snowing lightly and there were about three dozen monkeys enjoying the waters and about as many visitors. Their seed lunch had just been distributed, so they were actively picking through the snow for food.

By the warm flowing river, a plastic pipeline had been laid (to feed the pool) and it was warm, too. Predictably, the pipeline was appropriated by the monkeys as a “heating pad”.

Altogether I would say that the humans behaved as well as the monkeys:  each respected their space and went about their business – the monkeys enjoying their hot spring and grooming, the visitors quietly photographing and filming them. A perfect symbiosis?

Click here for a live webcam of the monkey spa.

See also my post about getting to Jigokudani Monkey Park.

Join the Conversation


  1. The balancing ones look like they’re trying to be birds and got confused. Cool photos.

  2. Very furry birds that can’t fly! Their fur is actually not as soft as it looks but it insulates them well and it is astonishing how fast it dries once they are out of the water. Matter of minutes.

  3. Love all your pictures of the snow monkeys, and the journey to get there. So beautiful….How these little guys relish the snow and getting wet, albeit warm, is truly amazing….Hope there were none showing signs of distress…I would worry that this can’t be good for them, but apparently they live this way. Is the snow there year round?????

  4. Very nice story & pics.I hope you will not become
    the Jane Gooddall of the snow monkeys and
    come back to Berlin one day.
    Best wishes for the ongoing journey.

  5. Zenaida, how fabulous! “Grooming and dozing” sound like a heavenly existence to me right now! Do I need an appointment to get into the “spa”? It looks pretty booked… I also like the Farrah Fawcett hairdos! Those monkeys know how to live and so do YOU my dear! Your photography is absolutely extraordinary! I’m so glad it is the first thing I saw when I opened my computer this morning. You have put me in a great mood. Enjoy! I’ll look forward to following the rest of your trip. Much love, Madelyn

  6. I have visited Japan before and I love to be in Kyoto city. But I never heard about snow monkey after reading your article I will definitely love to visit them also. Thanks for posting.

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