Japan is one of the world’s most intriguing travel locations. With a staggeringly vibrant blend of traditional and modernity, the country has just about something for everyone, and then more.
On a visit to Japan, people normally spend their time exploring the ancient temples as well as the modern architecture that makes up the country’s major cities. And then, of course, there are those that go directly for the incredible culinary treats, such as fresh sushi, noodles, and those wonderfully decadent Mochis.
Then… there are some that choose to travel off the beaten path in a quest to find … monkeys. Yes, guest contributor, Teresa Otto helped her sweet mother fulfill her life-long dream of visiting the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yudanaka. And the beautiful snow monkeys did not disappoint!
Trekking to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, but the way she looked at me with puppy dog eyes, pushed me over the edge. The fifteen-hour flight and the nine-hour time difference would take their toll. But the trip had been on her travel bucket list since snow monkeys hit the cover of National Geographic several years before.
“Okay, Mom, let’s go!”
The destination – Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park in Yudanaka Japan. The travelers – five animal-loving baby boomers and one beside-herself, giddy with anticipation 88-year old woman (aka Mom) – the driving force behind the trip.
As I started to plan the two-day trip from Tokyo, my mom started to train, increasing her daily walks by a city block each week. Her excitement was so infectious we all caught it.
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Traveling from Tokyo to Yudanaka
Wild snow monkeys, or Japanese macaques, are best visited in Jigokudani Snow Money Park on the outskirts of Yudanaka, a city near Nagano. With Tokyo as home base, we took a bullet train, the Hokuriku Shinkansen, to the JR Nagano station. The trip takes 80-110 minutes and costs about 8000 JPY, yen, or $75 USD one way.
In the station, signs point you to either the Nagaden Express bus stop or the Snow Monkey Express train. The express bus is ideal if you are making a day trip because it conveniently drops you off at Jigokudani’s trailhead and returns you to the Nagano station. A two-day pass for 3500 JPY ($32 USD) covers the round-trip bus (or non-express Naganden Dentutsu train) and the park entrance fee.
Since we planned to overnight in Yudanaka, we took the Snow Monkey Express train instead. Yudanaka is a small onsen town – a resort town that has grown around natural hot springs.
The express train leaves about every three hours for the 45-minute trip from Nagano to Yudanaka. Train tickets are purchased at the platform’s kiosk for 1260 JPY one way (about $12).
For bus and train schedules visit Jigokudani’s website.
Staying in a Ryokan in Yudanaka
I’m all for authentic experiences. That meant staying at Yudanaka Tawaraya Ryokan – being greeted by our hostess, Sakaya, with piping hot tea, padding around in yukata (kimono, sash or obi, and socks), sleeping on futons placed directly on the room’s tatami mats after dinner, and sharing a communal natural hot spring bath in the buff.
Yudanaka’s hot springs bubble up from Hades so the bath gets quite toasty. Before you shy away from the naked-in-public experience, take comfort knowing the steam and low lighting are great concealers and no one will be wearing their glasses.
Tips on Ryokan Etiquette
To avoid making the mistakes I’ve made, here’s the scoop on ryokans:
- Shoes aren’t allowed in the ryokan, ever. Park your shoes at the door or in a cubby at the entrance.
- Wear the socks provided for you or wear your own. Bare feet on tatami mats are a no-no.
- You can wear your kimono anywhere in the ryokan, including the dining room.
- Innkeepers provide toilet slippers – yep, you only wear them in the water closet and nowhere else.
- Many inns allow you to reserve a semi-private bath or onsen, so only you and your traveling companions are in the bath. The onsen is a large soaking tub, not a bath as Westerners are accustomed to. First, you wash and rinse yourself off and then boil yourself in the onsen.
- And finally, if you have tattoos, check with the innkeeper to make sure you’re allowed to soak. Tattoos in Japan have been associated with Yakuza -organized crime gangs- so you will probably need to reserve a private bath so you don’t disrupt Japanese bathers.
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Touring and Dining in Yudanaka
We toured Yudanaka after checking in, visiting a Buddhist temple, the outdoor public foot-soaking bath, and a woodworker’s shop. Most ryokans offer meals, but we found a restaurant, Yakiya Nasubi, just steps away.
We ordered randomly, with none of us speaking or reading Japanese. Chicken, fish, and vegetable dishes made fresh by the waiter/cook were absolute perfection.
After a full day, my mom slept peacefully on her futon. Worry robbed me of deep sleep.
Would my mom have the stamina to make the two-mile round-trip hike? Would we even see the monkeys?
Should I book a second night at the ryokan in case we needed to go back the next day? Would Sakaya know I forgot to take off my toilet shoes and took a few steps on the tatami mat?
All first world worries, but worries nonetheless.
Visiting the Jigokudani Monkey Park
After a short night, the big day arrived.
My mom awakened, rolled off the futon, and sprung to her feet. Beside herself, giddy, raring to go.
Sakaya’s brother shuttled us to the gift shop at the Jigokudani’s trailhead. The gift shop rents boots and sells hats, gloves, heavy socks, and boot crampons for those trekking in winter. But this was April. This was the moment we’d prepared for.
My mom tackled the trail’s first set of stairs like Rocky Balboa. The well-groomed, mile-long path was a bit muddy and steps a bit slippery, but free from snow or ice.
The trail inclined gradually through fragrant cedar and evergreen trees, past impromptu miniature waterfalls. We perched on mossy rock walls to enjoy the views.
Several young, Japanese tourists stopped to talk to my mom, so very reverent when she told them her age. That’s when we spotted our first monkey at a distance. What a relief.
As we reached the second staircase, we were minutes away from reaching Mom’s bucket list destination. A building with the ticket booth (admission is 800 JPY or $7.50), an informative display about the park, and restrooms stood at the entrance.
We had arrived and, on cue, monkeys strolled across our path. Drowsy senior citizen macaques with grizzled beards soaked in the steaming pool. Juveniles scrambled up boulders surrounding the hot spring and monkey buddies groomed each other.
But it was the parade of monkey moms and piggybacked babies born weeks before that captured our attention. We lingered there for most of the morning, while tour groups came and went. We were reluctant to leave this bucket list destination.
As is often the case, the walk back seemed shorter. Before we knew it, we were sipping tea at Enza Café near the trailhead and shopping for monkey park t-shirts.
We used a local bus to return to Yudanaka train station for our trip back to Nagano past countryside with blooming fruit trees, vegetable farms, and small villages. Continuing to Tokyo by bullet train, scenery whizzed by as the train sped toward Tokyo at 170 miles per hour. We all fell silent, replaying the day, storing memories, and for my mom, checking one more thing off her bucket list.
Tips for Traveling to Jigokudani Monkey Park:
- If you plan to see several cities in Japan, purchasing a rail pass online before you leave home can save you money. For information on available passes, visit Japan Rail’s website. The pass is activated at the ticket counter/customer service at Narita, Haneda, or Kansai airport or major train stations in country.
- Yudanaka Tawaraya Ryokan is a clean, family-run inn. Sakaya, the innkeeper’s daughter, speaks English. For booking and reviews click here.
- For the tasty egg salad sandwich the late Anthony Bourdain featured on his show Parts Unknown, head to Lawson’s. It’s a convenience store across the street from the train station.