“Well,” Dave said, letting out a deep sigh. “This has to be one of the biggest letdowns of my life.”
I nodded in quiet disappointment as I stared out at the bleak scene ahead of me. Instead of a snow-covered paradise, I was standing in what felt like a construction site full of rubble, with piles of rocks and exposed cables forming a backdrop against the commotion. I watched in dismay as staff at the Jigokudani Monkey Park threw food at the agitated macaques until they began to screech and fight on the damp mud.
This was one of the worst animal encounters I’d ever experienced.
Moments earlier, I had been bounding up the side of a mountain, singing to Dave about how one of my greatest travel dreams was about to realised. Brimming with so much joy that I could barely see.
I couldn’t believe I had got it so wrong.
Jigokudani Monkey Park was founded by Sogo Hara in 1964 in an attempt to keep local macaques from harm.
Monkeys have lived in this area of Japan for a long time, but sixty years ago, their home in the forest was threatened. Trees were being cut down to build ski lifts for resorts, and as the monkeys’ habitat began to shrink, they travelled towards Jigokudani, otherwise known as the Valley of Hell.
Why such a dramatic name? This area of the country is full of mountains and volcanic activity, which means that in the winter, you can witness huge plumes of steam emanating from the hot springs that pool around this region.
As the monkeys moved closer to humans, they found themselves within a short distance of several farms. Suddenly, food was in plentiful supply, and the macaques were all about stealing the farmer’s apples. These farmers, unsurprisingly disgruntled, went on to petition the government about the situation, and were granted permission to kill the monkeys in order to protect their land.
When Sogo Hara found out about this, he created Jigokudani Monkey Park to keep the monkeys from harm. For months on end, he’d place apples in a nearby valley beside a hot spring, until eventually, the monkeys learned to stick around and avoid the farmland they’d been tearing apart.
And as for the whole bathing in an onsen thing? At some point, the apples in the valley began to fall into a nearby hot spring, and the monkeys started taking a dip into the water to fish them out. Macaques had not, until this point, ever been observed in onsens, but it turned out they kind of liked being warm in the winter.
And so a tourist attraction was born.
Here’s what I was expecting it to be like, based on the photos I’d seen online.
So how did it all go so wrong?
Our day began with a mishap.
I’d manipulated our Japan itinerary to include an illogical visit to the snow monkeys, and convinced myself it would be worth the long-winded adventure to get to them. I’d wanted to go since first learning about their home in 2011, and now that I had finally made it to Japan, was prepared to go all out in order to see them for myself.
Waking early, we jumped on our first train of the day, from our accommodation to the main station in Hakone. From there, we would need to switch to a train bound for Tokyo, change to a train heading to Nagano, and then leap on a train to Yudanaka. Our ryokan owner would then pick us from at the station, drive us to Jigokudani Monkey Park, and leave us to hike the 30 minutes up the mountain to the entrance.
It was going to be an exhausting day, and our route would see us battling to make numerous connections.
And then, of course, we missed our first one.
Which caused us to miss the next one.
And the next.
We were in a battle against the clock, desperate to make it to Yudanaka before the park closed, while struggling to contact the ryokan owner to let him know we’d be late.
When we finally pulled up at the station, two hours later than planned, we were driven straight to the monkeys. “Walk quickly,” the owner urged us. “The park closes in an hour.”
Most people estimate the walk up the mountain to take around half an hour, but we did it in just over 15. As we hurried, we pretended not to notice the lack of snow on the ground, and I instead told Dave about how I couldn’t be any more excited.
We arrived at the ticket office, red and sweaty, but convinced we were about to have one of the best experiences of our life.
“Hurry,” the woman told us. “They’re leaving soon.”
We grabbed our tickets and ran down the path to the small onsen.
It was empty.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, I heard a sharp whistle radiating from the sky and gazed upwards. A huge horde of monkeys raced down a nearby slope towards us, bounding over rocks and skidding over gravel. I took a step back. Several minutes later, a man in Snow Monkey Park gear clambered after them.
I’d read online that the snow monkeys descend the mountain early each morning to relax in the onsen, and usually stick around until the afternoon. Clearly now was the time when they wanted to return back to their home, but there were paying tourists in the park, so the staff members weren’t letting them leave.
I felt uncomfortable as I watched them try to leave over and over again.
The hot springs were empty.
It turns out that when there’s no snow on the ground, the experience is more than disappointing.
Those famous photos you’ve seen of the snow monkeys that depict a gorgeous snowscape in the wilds of Japan? Well, when we were there, it looked more like a barren pile of rocks surrounding an ugly pool of water.
A pool of water that the monkeys were clearly avoiding going anywhere near.
I struggled to hide my disappointment as I watched the now-agitated monkeys fight and screech at each other. The staff member who had chased the macaques down the mountain was now standing with a bucket of food at his feet, throwing handfuls on the ground to keep the monkeys close to us. It felt as though he was encouraging them to fight with each other in order to keep them away from the mountain.
Whenever a monkey tried to leave? He ran after it and a few minutes later was encouraging back towards the hot springs.
When a different monkey showed signs of wanting to leave? He threw food at it to keep it around.
This site is pitched as a natural phenomenon, where monkeys happily bathe in hot springs and live their lives in calming harmony. The opposite, it turned out, was true. The monkeys at Jigokudani are essentially living in captivity, forced to spend their days around gawping humans rather than living in the onsen by choice.
Dave and I turned to each other and winced.
I couldn’t believe my travel dream had ended up so unethical and tragic.
I couldn’t believe that something that’s touted as an organic experience with wild animals had been anything but. The monkeys seemed unhappy, agitated, and stressed. I hated that the macaques had been forced to spend time around paying customers, and I felt guilty for being the reason for their distress.
The other couple who was standing with us watching the scene looked just as uncomfortable.
Ten minutes after arriving, we turned and left.
Upon reaching our ryokan, we stripped off and headed straight to the private onsen to mull it over. As we talked, the ground outside was slowly being blanketed in snow. And when we awoke the following morning, there was a glistening paradise awaiting us outside the window.
And… I wanted to return to the snow monkeys.
It made no sense.
I’d paid to have a terrible experience, had witnessed dubious practices, and didn’t want to give the park more money. But. I also knew that if I wrote about how terrible my experience had been, people would think it was due to the lack of snow. I wanted to visit in the morning instead of the afternoon, and see the monkeys in the snow rather than the mud. I wanted to be able to give a more balanced opinion.
So, we went.
The ryokan owners were bemused when we told them we were returning for a second visit, but I was determined to see the park in two different lights, so insisted it would be worth a return.
We climbed for twenty minutes in silence, this time in awe of the snowy landscape. I was sliding all over the place in my gripless shoes, and thought about how I’d really regret my second visit if I died here.
We learned that we were the first visitors to the park of the day, paid again, slipped and slid over to the onsen, and it was like we were in a different place.
The monkeys were quiet and calm, and the surrounding area looked beautiful when blanketed in white. We had a dozen macaques to observe without anybody else around.
None of the monkeys were being fed at this time of day, none of them were trying to leave the onsen, and none of them seemed in the least bit agitated.
We had an hour before we needed to head back to the train station, so we filled it by taking photos and videos, and simply watching the monkeys interact with each other. It was intimate, bizarre, and amazing all rolled into one.
So now I was conflicted, but also, I wasn’t.
Despite having seen the monkeys in a seemingly happy state of mind, I also knew that come 3 p.m., the snow would have melted and they’d be trying to head back up the mountain. If people were still paying to enter the park at that time, would likely be forced to stay.
Had I come to see the snow monkeys on that snowy morning and skipped the visit the day before, I would have labelled this one of the best things I’ve ever done. It would have felt like such an incredible, organic experience, not dissimilar to hiking to wild mountain gorillas in the D.R.C. But I can’t come to that conclusion after having seen the other side of how the park is run.
I understand why the staff members attempt to keep the monkeys around the guests because, hey, if you had just spent 30 minutes hiking up a mountain in the cold, paid the entrance fee, and then found nothing waiting for you at the end, you’d label it a terrible experience. Ask for a refund. Likely give it a one-star review on TripAdvisor. Tell people not to bother going.
That doesn’t make the staff’s behaviour right, though.
The entire reason the park was created was to protect the monkeys from humans, and they’re now in a situation where they’re doing the opposite. It’s disappointing, especially as the park was set up as a conservation effort at first. But tourism and tourism dollars have the power to ruin experiences like those.
And while we were lucky to be the first visitors to the park, that day, here’s what it looks like once the crowds have arrived:
It looks like a zoo, and I can’t imagine the monkeys love being surrounded by thousands of people and cameras all day every day. What are the odds that genuinely wild animals would choose to put themselves in the situation depicted in the photo above? I just can’t see it.
Even more concerning, though, is the TripAdvisor review that recalls seeing a staff member using a slingshot and rocks to herd the monkeys towards the visitors.
As I wrote in my hedgehog cafe post (because apparently all of my posts about Japan are focused on animal ethics), in the grand scheme of things, this wasn’t a horrific experience.
It wasn’t an organic experience.
It wasn’t a particularly ethical one.
But on the scale of animal and human cruelty, feeding monkeys and keeping them in one spot for several hours a day is nowhere near the most outrageous thing happening on the planet today. We all do things that are arguably worse, whether it’s eating meat, buying iPhones, using Amazon, or flying around the planet.
So, should you go or not?
That’s up to you and what you deem to be ethical. We all have different views when it comes to ethics, and we all draw our lines in different places.
I, personally, would not recommend visiting.
The monkeys are touted as being wild, and supposedly there are no fences so they can leave whenever they want, but when they’re being fed by staff members, why would they ever go off to find their own food sources? I think it’s important to know what you’re paying for, then, and to keep in mind that the monkeys may not necessarily want to be where they are. It’s down to you whether you want to support it or not.
So here’s my mini-guide for what to do if you do want to go.
What to Know Before You Go
It costs $7/800¥ to see the snow monkeys.
Go in winter. This is the only time of year when you’ll be able to see the monkeys with snow, and if there’s none on the ground, don’t bother. Seriously. Not only will the monkeys not be in the onsen because it’ll be too hot, but they’ll also just be running around what looks like a construction site. Save your time and money and see one of the hundreds of amazing sights Japan has to offer instead.
You can see regular macaques all over the world — I’ve seen wild ones in about 20-odd countries by now — so I’d recommend taking the opportunity to see something unique instead.
Check the webcam. There’s a webcam at the park that gives you a live view of what’s happening at the onsen. If you take a look and you don’t see any monkeys, it probably won’t be worth making the trek.
Go early. Jigokudani Monkey Park opens at 9 a.m., and you’ll then have a 20-30 minute hike in the snow to the hot springs. We arrived right when it opened and had the monkeys all to ourselves for a good 20 minutes. After we had spent an hour by the pool, the crowds were starting to arrive. I’d imagine that by midday, you’d struggle to even make your way to the front to take a photo, based on zoo-esque photo of people crowding around the monkeys that I shared above.
Another reason to go early is because the monkeys will want to leave the mountain later in the afternoon. By not visiting near closing time, you won’t be seeing the staff members doing everything they can to keep them around the paying visitors, so the monkeys will be happier. That doesn’t mean that these activities won’t go on, of course, but it’s certainly less distressing to not have to witness it.
What this means is that you shouldn’t visit as part of a day trip from Tokyo, unless you leave ridiculously early, because otherwise you might get there too late.
Stay in Yudanaka: We stayed in a cosy ryokan, which is something you have to experience at least once in Japan. With prices often reaching as high as $300 a night for the experience, I was thrilled when I stumbled across a more budget option in Yudanaka. It was run by an adorable Japanese couple, and their house came with a private onsen, return transport to the snow monkeys, and one of the most extravagant meals of my life. A kaiseki is a multi-course meal that will see you eating what feels like a week’s worth of food in a single night, sampling fresh, local Japanese cuisine. It was delicious, and I adored having no idea what anything was. I highly recommend the experience, although being presented with a seven course meal for breakfast had me on the verge of tears the morning after.
Consider hiring extra gear: People get injured on the slopes up the mountain so consider renting snowshoes and an umbrella (to protect you from snow smacking you on the head from the trees above) to keep you safe. I didn’t bother with this, but almost fell over multiple times, and probably shouldn’t have risked it.
Expect to struggle with photo-taking: What do you get when you combine hot water with snow? Yep, a whole load of steam, and your camera is going to want to focus on it. I struggled to get great photos because the steam made everything look washed out, my camera struggled to focus on the monkeys, and they moved so quickly it was hard to get a sharp image. Arrive with low expectations in the hope that they’ll be exceeded.
Oh, and make sure your camera battery is fully charged before you arrive — the cold weather will drain your battery shockingly fast. Mine was dead within 30 minutes when it usually would have lasted for at least five or six hours.
Have you ever ended up disappointed by something you’d always dreamed of seeing?
Photo credits: BlueOrange Studio/Shutterstock; Norikko/Shutterstock; Lydiarei/Shutterstock.