Five o’clock in the morning is early for almost everyone, even early risers like Adam and me, but it was especially early on our first full morning in Japan. Three days earlier, we had settled into our seats on a flight from Washington Dulles to Beijing. Two days earlier we had landed after almost fourteen hours in the air, where we secured 24-hour visas and left the airport for a walking tour of China’s capital city, a trek that would have been easy on most days but felt taxing to our stiff, sleep-deprived bodies. One day earlier we had awoken at six o’clock in the morning after sleeping for just four hours in a hotel close to Beijing International Airport, which was convenient for our connection to Tokyo that same day. We landed that afternoon in Japan’s capital, exchanged our Japan Rail vouchers for validated passes, made the journey from Narita to our hotel in the city, ate our first proper meal at what would have been a proper British pub if we were in London (instead, it was a convenient if unorthodox choice), and fell into a dreamless sleep until the alarm startled us into consciousness. It was time to see the snow monkeys.
After an all-too-short visit to Tokyo a few years ago, Adam and I started a running list of the places we wanted to visit and sights we wanted to see when we eventually returned to Japan. When we decided to visit Tokyo for New Year’s Eve 2020, it was tricky to whittle our list down to an itinerary that would maximize our vacation days without exhausting us. Although a day trip to Nagano to see the world-famous snow monkeys worked from a calendar perspective, I questioned whether it was a bit too much from an exhaustion standpoint as I stared at my sleepy reflection in the mirror while brushing my teeth.
If you’re planning a trip to Tokyo, a day trip to see the snow monkeys in Nagano pairs the opportunity to see a beautiful part of the country with dozens of playful animals representing a colorful piece of local lore. We had a terrific time—and we know you’ll enjoy it just as much!
A Quick History of Jigokudani Monkey Park
Although seeking out Nagano’s snow monkeys makes a great day trip from Tokyo, you may wonder why the snow monkeys decided to call the region home. The Japanese macaques have lived in the Nagano area for decades, but their habitat began to shrink as ski resorts began to populate the mountains in the 1950s. With nowhere else to go, the monkeys moved into local towns and quickly proved to be a nuisance; as they began looting fruit from neighboring farms, locals were given permission from police to hunt them as a way to keep their population under control.Fortunately for the mischievous monkeys, the manager of a traditional inn—called a ryokan—took pity on the animals and started offering them food as a way to lure them to a safer location. The monkeys found security in the land surrounding his ryokan, and through regular feedings they stopped venturing into the nearby towns—which meant local crops were secure again, too. In 1964, the Jigokudani Monkey Park was established to offer continuous protection to the monkeys.
According to local tales of the monkeys’ earliest days at Jigokudani Monkey Park, researchers would enjoy onsen—outdoor hot springs—during their visits to study the monkeys. One day, an apple intended for the monkeys fell into the onsen, and one of the more curious monkeys jumped into the hot water to retrieve it. The monkey paused for a while, seemingly enjoying the relaxing heat, and before long a few other monkeys had joined him for a swim. Soon, female monkeys were regularly using the onsen to bathe. Since then, generations of macaques have benefited from their determined ancestor, and hours upon hours of relaxing swims are credited to one stray piece of fruit and the primate who wouldn’t let it go uneaten.
As an important note, although the monkeys are encouraged to remain in the area by offering them food, they are not required to stay there. There are no fences or other restrictions in place to keep the snow monkeys in any one area. Additionally, they are not forced to soak in the hot springs or enter areas where tourists might be waiting to see them. The snow monkeys are wild animals, and they are treated as such.
More Information: Jigokudani Monkey Park (with live webcam!)
Nagano Snow Monkeys: the Day Trip Experience
Our trip to see the Nagano snow monkeys officially began as our train departed Tokyo Station en route to Nagano Station. Although our trip, just a day before New Year’s Eve, took place during one of Japan’s busiest travel seasons, the train was almost empty. We had no trouble finding seats in an unreserved car, and our journey was just a quick and comfortable hour and forty-five minutes long.
I expected to get a bit more sleep on the train ride to Nagano, but Japan is stunning in the winter, and Adam and I sat fixated as the landscape whooshed by us and our high-speed train made its way north to our destination. It felt like no time had passed when our train slowed to a stop and announced we were in Nagano. With our day trip tour scheduled to depart from Nagano Station, we stopped into a convenience store for a few snacks and some coffee before meeting our guide and two busloads of fellow travelers looking forward to seeing the snow monkeys.
The drive to Jigokudani Monkey Park takes about an hour from Nagano Station, and when the bus was finally parked and offloaded in many ways our journey was just beginning. From the parking lot, it’s a mile-long trek to the hot springs where the snow monkeys are commonly found, and although our visit took place on a somewhat mild day, the walk was anything but easy. December and January are ideal times to visit the snow monkeys because there’s a great chance you’ll also see snow; although the monkeys are often interested in bathing when there isn’t snow on the ground, it’s a much more magical setting to watch them frolic with pristine white powder in the background. However, with the snow comes its less welcome partner: ice.Ice covered enormous portions of the trail we walked before arriving at Jigokudani Monkey Park. The conditions varied from manageable to treacherous; in some spots the ground was dry and well-maintained, and in others the ice was thick and slippery. Between the two, slick muddy spots threatened our footing and kept us from making great time as we walked along with our guides and fellow tourists. We paused periodically to marvel at the landscape of tall trees under glistening snow, noting that the combination of mud, ice, and lack of railings made the walk feel more perilous than it would on better days. We also marveled as we watched a woman returning from the hot springs wearing high heels, who seemed to have missed the tour notes that winter footwear would be necessary. Slow and steady walking would win the day, and I decided to stop complaining about the conditions: after all, I could have been wearing heels.
At the end of the walk, as we climbed the steps leading into the park, we caught our first glimpse of the world we were about to enter. Below us, along the Yokoyu River, a small monkey darted across the rocks. He looked up at us, perhaps even making eye contact with us, before rushing along again in the direction we, too, were headed. I wondered if we would see him again when we made it to the hot springs.
Once we were inside Jigokudani Monkey Park, it took mere moments before we arrived at what must be the best primate pool party on the planet. As we walked across a bridge that leads to the main onsen, a tiny baby monkey—perhaps the same one we had seen along the river—darted past us and cannonballed into the water. One monkey, who moments before was relaxing peacefully in the steamy water, glared in his direction before lazily wading away from the chaos brought by the tiny intruder. Adam and I smiled; it was the first of many story lines we knew we would see that day.
The snow monkeys are wild and untrained, but they are not afraid of humans. Their behavior ranged from cute and playful to frightening and erratic. For the most part, we watched in quiet fascination as little monkeys hitched rides around the area on their mothers’ backs. We delighted in their adorable antics as they splashed, swam, and soaked in the hot springs, clearly appreciating the simple joy of a steamy bath on a cold day. We also watched as snow monkeys taunted one another, sometimes pushing each other too far and causing brief battles to break out as they chased each other, hissing and squawking as they darted between human legs. No fight seemed too vicious, though; grudges were quickly forgotten, and snow monkeys who couldn’t stand each other one minute were happily swimming together the next.
We had almost two hours to enjoy within Jigokudani Monkey Park, which was plenty of time for us to make the most of the experience. While you could certainly spend a few hours watching the monkeys, even a single hour will give you enough time to explore the park, take photos or videos, and pause to enjoy the experience of being there.
Additional Things to See in Nagano
Because we booked a full day tour to see the snow monkeys, we also had the chance to enjoy a few other destinations in Nagano.Our first stop of the day was at the incredible Zenkō-ji temple. One of the most important temples in Japan, the history of Zenkō-ji dates back to the 7th century, and the city of Nagano was built up around this very temple. The temple houses the very first buddha statue ever brought to Japan. The statue is not available for public display—in fact, even Zenkō-ji’s chief priest is not allowed to look at it. However, it is possible to see a statue of Binzuru, who was said to be one of Buddha’s followers. Binzuru was a physician, and visitors who touch the statue are believed to have their own ailments cured. Our guide told us we should touch the portion of the statue aligned with any part of our bodies giving us trouble; touching the head could relieve headaches, or touching the leg could ease knee pain. Despite the fact it was a cold, drizzly morning, our visit to Zenkō-ji was peaceful and enjoyable.
Because no trip to Japan is complete without sampling sake, we also had the chance to spend some time at Monzen Terrace Enya for a sake tasting. Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice, and we were glad to warm up in front of a fireplace while learning about the different styles and flavors available.
Tips for Visiting the Nagano Snow Monkeys
If you’re planning a trip to see the Nagano snow monkeys, here are a few tips to help make your trip easier.
► Consider a Snow Monkeys Tour
It is very easy to visit the Nagano snow monkeys from Tokyo without a guided tour, and you may prefer the added flexibility of more independently managing your own schedule. Although we strongly considered visiting on our own, we booked a guided tour for two reasons: our tour included a few additional stops in the Nagano area that would have been more challenging to reach by taxi or bus, and we wanted the easiest experience possible after several days of sleepless travel. Big bus tours get a bad rap, but what they lose in personal experiences they gain in convenience; we’ve also met great people during group tours and lunches. Consider booking a tour if you will have just one day in Nagano to see the snow monkeys. The ease of getting off the train, meeting our guide, and having our day planned for us opened us to relaxing and enjoying the day.
► Know the Train Schedules
Even if you have flexible travel plans, it’s a good idea to know the train schedules to be sure you don’t get stranded in Nagano. The Hokuriku-Shinkansen train runs directly between Tokyo Station and Nagano Station, and there are multiple trains running between the cities each day. We did not have reserved tickets, but you may be able to secure reserved tickets by visiting a JR Rail office. Our roundtrip journey was included with the seven-day JR Rail passes we purchased before arriving in Japan, but you can purchase roundtrip or one-way tickets at the train station before you depart.
More Information: Japan-Rail-Pass.com/
► Take the right gearIf your visit to see the Nagano snow monkeys will take place in the winter, be sure you pack the right gear for your day trip. We took warm hats, gloves, and coats, and we also wore snow boots with great tread (we both love our Bean Boots from L.L. Bean). Even with the great traction, we would have done even better with slip-on crampons and hiking sticks. The trail conditions were poor during our visit, and between the mud and the ice some extra stability help would have gone a long way. In fact, one woman on our tour slipped on the trail and broke her arm, a testament to the need for appropriate winter gear—and a reminder that you should always consider purchasing travel insurance before taking a vacation!). You can purchase crampons and walking sticks in advance on Amazon (it is possible to rent both in Japan, although they were not available to rent when we visited the Jigokudani Monkey Park).
► Put your camera down
By all means, take as many photos and videos as you want while watching the snow monkeys in their natural habitat, but don’t forget to put your phone down for a few moments while you visit to enjoy watching them with your eyes instead of through a screen. While we were excited to leave with lots of great photo captures and some fun videos, the best memories we have of our experience are just that: memories that can only be relived through telling stories and thinking about the sights and sounds of the monkeys scurrying along snow-covered railings before plunging into the hot springs. Those memories are some of our favorites from Japan, and we hope you’ll find a few that are just as wonderful during your trip!
Hotels in Nagano
We stayed in Tokyo during our visit, but you will find plenty of hotel options in Nagano if you are planning to stay for more than a day. We use Booking.com to find our hotels—take a look at some of the deals below and see if there is a hotel for you!
Enjoy Your Day Trip to See the Nagano Snow Monkeys!
By the time we arrived back to Tokyo and made our way to our hotel, Adam and I were no less exhausted than we had been when we awoke that morning—but this time, the exhaustion was accompanied by a sense of joy and accomplishment. In just one day, we journeyed to Nagano, toured the Zenkō-ji temple, watched the snow monkeys enjoy a day in the hot springs, and survived the icy walk to and from Jigokudani Monkey Park. Some vacations are relaxing, some are all about doing nothing, but this one was built on checking off items on our bucket list, and we were thrilled to have succeeded in our quest.
Visiting the Nagano snow monkeys in winter is an experience you won’t soon forget, and if you have the chance to include it as part of a vacation in Japan, we know it will create a full day of wonderful memories.
(The only thing better than a day visiting the Nagano snow monkeys was the eight blissfully uninterrupted hours of sleep we got that night. After all, we believe in making the most of every second of your vacation time, but our Japan trip was just getting started—we had a lot more of Tokyo to see!)
Get inspired for a vacation to Asia by checking out a few more of our posts from around the region!