The Snow Monkeys of Japan
Many articles have been written about the incredible snow monkeys of Japan. Over the years since they were first seen, numerous photographers have captured images and film footage of these creatures. My fascination with them inspired me to visit their habitat and photograph them for myself. In December of 2016, I went on a trip to Japan, and journeyed to the mountainous region where they are found.
The snow monkeys are located east of the city of Nagano, near the village of Yudanaka. Since I was traveling there from Tokyo I got to ride on the Shinkansen (high speed bullet train) to Nagano, then switched to a local train to Yudanaka station. A short taxi ride from there takes you to the well marked trailhead. After a one and a half mile hike through a beautiful evergreen forest I arrived at the entrance to the Jigokudani Monkey Park. There is a modest visitor center that has information and videos on the history and behavior of these primates. A nominal entrance fee then gets you access to observe the monkeys in their natural habitat.
The snow monkeys are actually macaques which are native to Japan. They live in the coldest climate of any non-human primate. When they were first discovered in this area it was noted that they would come down from the surrounding mountains to soak in the naturally occurring hotsprings known as onsen. Although man has somewhat intervened in their lives, they are still wild animals that continue this behavior. They are fed on a regular basis by attendants at the park. This happened at about the time I arrived. The monkeys were busy scooping up food with their hands and eating on the rocks surrounding the hotpool. I was able to approach them and get several photos while they were doing just that.
As soon as the monkeys were done eating they all headed to the hotspring for a soak. I had numerous opportunities to photograph both individuals and groups as they sat and relaxed in the pool. It was interesting to see them interacting with one another. At times they would use their hands to clean another member of the group. This seems to be a rather common behavior. Occasionaly, one would suddenly jump out of the water and scurry about the grounds, sometimes just below my feet. All in all it was an incredible experience to share some time with these creatures during one day of their lives.