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Monkeying Around in Japan

I don’t mention this often, but a picture of a Japanese snow monkey is part of what inspired me to make my first trip to Japan more than a decade ago. Well, that and the person who took it.

The bad news? It ended up taking me more than two years after seeing that photo to set foot on Japanese soil for the first time. The worse news? Though my crush was a great photographer, he turned out to be a pretty awful human being.

But I digress. I’ve now seen Japan’s red-faced macaques (and photographed them—better than whats-his-name did, I might add) several times. So I’m well-equipped to tell you where to see snow monkeys in Japan, and to inform you about the how and when of your trip as well.

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Why People Love Japanese Snow Monkeys

I assume that if you’re searching the internet for how to see snow monkeys in Japan, you already like the creatures. Officially a type of red-faced macaques, Japan’s snow monkeys have become one of the country’s most iconic animals. I think this occurred around the time I saw the image I mentioned in the introduction. (Which, looking back on it, he-who-shall-not-be-named might have simply harvested from a viral internet post.)

Visiting the snow monkeys (assuming you do it during the “season”—more on that in a second) also allows you to partake is a deliciously wintry experience. This is attractive because unless you’re a skier, it can be difficult to access winter in Japan in a way that actually…well, feels like winter. The fact that it’s pretty easy to access most of Japan’s snow monkeys just makes this even more attractive to travelers.


The Best Places to See Snow Monkeys in Japan

Jigokudani Monkey Park, Nagano

If you’re searching for snow monkeys near Tokyo, Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano prefecture is your best option. And, I’ll be frank, it’s the only place to see the iconic image of the monkeys: Namely, red-face macaques bathing in onsen in the Japanese Alps. None of the other options on this list allow you to get these sorts of pictures!

Hakodate Tropical Botanical Garden, Hokkaido

One alternative to Jigokudani Monkey Park if seeing monkeys in onsen is important (but you don’t need to be in the mountains) is Hakodate Tropical Botanical Garden in Hakodate, the southernmost city of Hokkaido island. Note that these “hot tubbing monkeys” (as the tourist association in Yunokawa Onsen calls them) are only present for a short time during the winter.

Iwatayama Monkey Park, Kyoto

The bad news? The monkeys on Iwatayama mountain in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district don’t bathe in onsen. The good news? They’re the same species of monkeys you find further afield, except they’re convenient to top Kyoto sightseeing attractions, namely the Sagano Bamboo Grove. It also almost never snows here, however, so this is a pretty big compromise. 

Minoh Park, Osaka

Osaka’s Minoh Park isn’t famous as a destination for seeing snow monkeys in Japan. Actually, it isn’t famous at all, except perhaps for being the place where the now-viral tempura-fried maple leaves originated. As is the case for most of the other places on this list, there are no onsen here and minimal snow, but you can nonetheless see monkeys here if you happen to be in the area anyway.

Osarunoyama Monkey Park, Tochigi

Located in Tochigi prefecture not far from the historic center of Nikko, Osarunoyama literally means “Monkey Mountain.” As a result, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is a top destination for seeing monkeys. The good news is that in the wintertime, you’re almost guaranteed to see snow here. The bad news? There are no hot springs.


How to Get to Jigokudani Monkey Park

Given that most people seeking snow monkeys will go to Jigokudani, I’m going to devote most of my energy in this article to explaning how to get there. (Want to see snow monkeys somewhere else in Japan? Not to worry! You can always hire me to plan your trip—I include detailed, personalized navigation instructions, not to mention a whole lot of other priceless details!)

At any rate, the easiest way to reach Jigokudani Monkey Park is to first get to Nagano Station. This is directly connected to Tokyo and Kanazawa via the Hokuriku Shinkansen, and to Matsumoto and Nagoya via the JR Chuo Line. Once you’re here, the Nagaden Bus can take you directly to the Snow Monkey Park entrance in about an hour (though the bus comes much less frequently outside of the winter season, do be advised.


Other FAQ About Seeing Snow Monkeys in Japan

When should I visit Jigokudani Monkey Park?

The best time to see snow monkeys in Japan is when there’s snow on the ground. While snow can fall in the mountains of Nagano prefecture as early as November or as late as April, the optimal time to visit for a perfectly snowy scene is in January or February, when there will be both falling snow and a deep layer on the ground already.

Can you bathe in Jigokudani Monkey Park?

You absolutely cannot bathe with the snow monkey of Jigokudani! This is first and foremost because the water is too hot—it’s over 50ºC or 122ºF, which is much hotter than human onsen. Secondly, the monkeys defecate and urinate in the water, so it simply wouldn’t be sanitary to bathe in it.

Can you see the snow monkeys on a day trip from Tokyo?

It’s easy to see the snow monkeys on a day trip from Tokyo. First, ride any Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo or Ueno Stations to Nagano Station. Then check the Nagaden Bus timetable, and ride the Nagaden Bus to the Snow Monkey Park entrance. Do make sure to verify the last bus time back before you start your hike, which takes around 45 minutes each way.


The Bottom Line

After reading this post, you should have a clear idea not only about where to see snow monkeys in Japan, but how to get there, when to travel and maybe even some ideas about other places to visit in Japan. For most travelers, a trip to Jigokudani Monkey Park (whether as a day trip from Nagano or Tokyo, or an overnight stay at a nearby ryokan) should do the trick. If you’re more adventurous, you might go further afield to Nikko or Hakodate; if you’ve got less time, you could simply visit Kyoto’s monkey park, which features the same monkeys, but (usually) no snow. Want personalized help putting your trip together? Consider hiring me to plan it!


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