Ahhh, a leisurely soak in a hot spring with good friends, taking in the snow-covered scenery. Sound good? Then you’ll get along just fine with the Japanese macaque (Macaca fuscata), also known as the snow monkey or Nihon-zaru. You can observe these famous onsen-bathing macaques and get in some soaking of your own, in the Yudanaka Onsen area of Nagano. Macaques escape the cold in the hot springs at Jigokudani Monkey Park. Not a zoo—the park lets you see the macaques as they really live in the wild.
Macaques display a fascinating degree of culture, well documented by scientists. They spread newly invented behaviors through imitation. In a long-studied troop on Koshima Island, Miyazaki Prefecture, one ingenious female discovered that washing food in the river was preferable to simply brushing off dirt. (Macaques, along with humans and raccoons, are the only animals known to wash their food.) Soon her entire troop adopted the method—except for the troop leader, who steadfastly did things the good old-fashioned way! The same troop later began dipping food in the ocean between each bite, for a tasty salted snack.
As researchers watched, a juvenile Koshima macaque discovered swimming during an impulsive plunge into the sea, and now entire troops swim recreationally. Their love of hot springs, introduction of new foods and grooming techniques and even learned child-raising skills are examples of innovative macaque culture.
Macaques give birth in spring through autumn, so frisky youngsters will be at play in Jigokudani this winter. They chase through baths filled with patient elders and wrestle for sticks and snowballs, both favored toys. In some troops the entire group rolls snowballs as a form of social inter-action.
A Species in Danger
Unfortunately, the macaque is threatened throughout Japan. Loss of habitat to development and logging is the primary cause. Macaques raid farmers’ crops as natural food supplies decrease, compounding the problem. Ignoring their protected status, irate farmers kill or capture up to 5,000 macaques each year. Those not killed often go into the animal trade or become research subjects.
But nuisance behavior is just a symptom of greater problems—development, clear-cutting and monoculture forests. The cedar plantations blanketing Japan offer no food to macaques. Simple solutions have proven elusive, but researchers are searching for non-lethal methods to keep macaques out of crops. More importantly, they are also calling for better mixed-forest management and curbs on development, so that macaques, venerated by the Japanese for centuries, can continue to fascinate, entertain and educate us.
Getting there: Yudanaka Onsen is 40 minutes from Nagano Station by the Nagano Dentetsu Railway express or 70 minutes by local train. To reach the Monkey Park, take a bus or taxi (15 minutes) to Kanbayashi Onsen. From there, it's about a 30-minute walk to the Jigokudani Yaen-koen entrance.
Accommodations: Hotel Tsubakino is a modern ryokan in the center of Yudanaka Onsen, with easy access to the monkey park and Shiga Kogen Ski Resort. You can make bookings online at www.outdoorjapan.com/accommodation/accommodation-tsubakino.html
Info:. The Jigokudani Monkey Park（地獄谷野猿公苑）has extensive English information. Website: www.jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp. Visit Outdoor Japan Online (www.outdoorjapan.com) for a link to the park’s live Snow Monkey webcam and info about winter sports in the area. For a past story about the 100th Monkey Project in Karuizawa, Nagano, visit www.outdoorjapan.com/TO/0503/TO-3-monkeys.html.