Since moving to Japan a few months ago (yeah, that happened), a trip to see the snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs have been high on the bucket list. We’ve all seen the National Geographic photos of these adorable creatures bathing in the natural hot tubs in the middle of winter so, living in the same prefecture as them was definitely exciting. While winter is not my favourite season, I’ve definitely been waiting for the snow to pile up so that I could actually see them bathing. Last weekend, I finally got the opportunity! I was supposed to be traveling this month starting last week but due to some shifts, I’m still here in Japan. Thankfully, it was also my husband’s weekend off so we took the chance to go see them. It’s a relatively easy day trip for us especially considering so many people travel the globe to go see them, only about an hour and a half drive to the North, through Nagano city and into the mountains to Jugokudani National Park.
Jugokudani National Park (Snow Monkey Park)
The Jugokudani National Park is special because it hosts wild japanese macaques that bathe in the natural hot springs in the area. Japanese macaques are the most northern dwelling primates in the world, maybe because they are able to stay warm in these lovely hot water pools? The walk to the pools is about a kilometer through beautiful plantation forests and at places quite slippery but as it is quite level, it was very easy. It was packed on the weekend with lots of foreigners and japanese alike.
Everyday during cold weather, the monkeys come down from the mountains to bathe and warm themselves in the hot pools. They spend the time grooming each other and it’s pretty funny to see them totally relaxed while another monkey picks through their fur. It’s just the kind of face you would have if you were in a hot bath and someone was massaging you… bliss!
I had seen some photos online of the setup where it looked like the monkeys get very close to people (they do!). There is a human made pool where some of them will relax as well as an area close to the river where some of them will also bathe. Surrounding the human made pool are dozens and dozens of tourists, often photographing a single monkey! This *are* wild animals after all, they go and come and do as they please with people trying to catch them looking their most relaxed selves. Most of the monkeys really didn’t care how close they were to humans. They came and went at their will delighting visitors when they scurried between feet in order to come or leave the pool. Also keep in mind that there are actually hundreds of monkeys that live in the surrounding mountains, not all of them will be there at the same time. There are some security guards making sure that nobody is getting too close or feeding the monkeys which I’m sure happens quite often.
I used my favourite Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 lens (which I use for the majority of 98% of all of my shots ever). However, because most of the monkeys that were relaxed were relatively further away, I wasn’t fully satisfied with what I got. Next time I visit, I will definitely be taking my Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8mm with 1.2x teleconverter to get that extra reach. There is a bar around some parts of the pool so having that extra reach is key for photographing facial expressions and details. If you have a longer lens, I would suggest you bring it. The combination of two lenses probably makes the most sense, I was glad I had the 24-70 for the wider shots of the monkeys in the pool to give more context.
Given the sheer number of visitors, I think this is a pretty good setup for the animals. They come and go at their will, they are given protection and are not caged. It is well set up for photographers. The animals are totally habituated to humans but it is quite thrilling to see them up close and be able to interact with them. That said, it is very, very important to follow all rules and remember that they are wild animals. Stay at least 1m from the animal (unless they come close to you while you are standing still), do not try to touch them, do not feed them and always give them space to cut off the interaction if they don’t want to be photographed.
As always with wild animals, respect their space and be patient! If you want photos of them looking at you, it might take a while. Observe their behavior, their interactions with each other and their personalities. Overall, a fantastic first trip! I’m thankful I live so close and can easily plan another one even at the last minute. My next goal is to get them in the middle of a snow storm 😉 Stay tuned! In the meantime, here are some of my photos of my time with them.