The Japanese snow monkeys who live in and around Jigokudani Monkey Park are the very picture of tranquility as they enjoy a long soak in the park's naturally-heated pools.
Up in the Japanese Alps, the charming Japanese Macaques, more commonly known as Japanese snow monkeys, get ready to take a relaxing dip in their own private hot tub. They are visiting Japan's famous Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano prefecture, an open-area sanctuary that tempts them down from the mountains to enjoy the unique privilege of bathing in the park's natural hot springs.
The park offers tourists the chance to revel in the monkeys' adorableness firsthand and — even when the park is full of humans — the monkeys wander about unperturbed, climbing in and out of the natural pools of steaming water heated by subterranean geothermal processes.
Their comfortability is owed largely to the very strict rule the park has prohibiting humans from entering any of these pools themselves — the Japanese snow monkeys do defecate in there, after all — so the Macaques are used to having the pools all to themselves.
Observers mostly confirm what one would expect — maximum cuteness. The monkeys are "very used to humans, they scamper all around us as they descend from the hills looking for food strewn by the park staff", one says. Another one notes, "You could spend hours here!! They are so cute and so many little babies."
Why They Love Hot Springs
You would assume the Japanese snow monkeys enjoy swimming in the springs simply because of the warmth, but there's more to it than that.
Although snow monkeys do tend to bathe more often during the winter than the summer, so far there is no physiological data that suggests the snow monkeys bathe in the hot springs solely to raise their body temperature; mostly, it appears that they soak to lower their stress levels.
In the winter, snowfall at Snow Monkey Park can be heavy and the average temperature dropping to around 14 degrees Fahrenheit. While the temperature of the water in the pools hovers consistently around 122 degrees Fahrenheit, the park's snow monkeys do have thick, warm coats so they're naturally adapted to the cold weather and do not need to bathe in the pools to survive the cold temperatures.
Still, the heat from the pools is definitely relaxing and bathing in them is a communal activity for the snow monkeys around the park, so they benefit from the stress-reducing warmth of the waters and the instinctual need for socializing with other monkeys.
As the name would suggest, snow monkeys are very much at home in the snow and baby monkeys are particularly prone to wrestling and frolicking around in the stuff — if you're lucky, you may even catch them making snowballs.
While a small group of about 150 monkeys visits the park regularly, it's estimated that there are more than 114,000 wild snow monkeys in the mountains. Fortunately, they are not an endangered species but about 10,000 Japanese Macaques are killed each year [PDF] to protect the Nagano area's agricultural industry.
How Japanese Snow Monkeys Discovered The Hot Springs In The First Place
Historically speaking, Japanese snow monkeys were considered pests. Forced from their natural habitats by human development — including multiple ski resorts built in the Nagano area beginning in the 1950s — they found themselves struggling to adapt, resorting to raiding local fruit orchards and farms in the area.
In response to the crop damage, the government made it legal to hunt and kill the snow monkeys. Some protested the culling and a local nature enthusiast, Sogo Hara, argued that this killing was unnecessary. He decided to train the monkeys to accept food from humans in the hopes that this would save both crops and monkeys from harm. It also would have the added benefit of attracting tourists to the region, diversifying the economy.
He wasn't the first to do attempt something like this either. Scientists on Koshima Island began feeding local wild monkeys sweet potatoes as early as 1948. The monkeys famously began washing the potatoes in seawater [PDF], learning this behavior as a group after they observed a single monkey wash its sweet potato in this manner.
At a remote Japanese inn named Korakukan near Jigokudani in the early 1960s, Hara spent five years using discarded and bruised apples to train a local group of snow monkeys to trust humans.
After this trust became ingrained in the group, it began to spread to other snow monkeys in the area and started being passed down to subsequent generations of monkeys as a learned behavior. The seeds of Jigokudani Monkey Park were planted.
There are a couple different accounts of exactly how the snow monkeys discovered the hot springs, but most likely it began with a single monkey, probably a more adventurous youth, deciding to poke a finger into one of the steaming pools on the grounds of the Korakukan inn out of curiosity.
Soon a finger became a hand, then an arm, then eventually it eased itself in up to its neck. Apparently, it gave the hot spring a rave review to its fellow snow monkeys because over the course of several years, the number of monkeys jumping into the hot springs steadily increased.
Seeing this trend, the inn decided to cede one of their hot springs to the monkeys entirely — mostly for hygienic reasons — and the rest is history.
Jigokudani Monkey Park
The park is located in the Valley of Yokoyu River which takes its water from Shiga-Kogen of the Jyoshinetsu-Kogen National Park in the northern part of Nagano prefecture. The park is considered the best way for tourists to observe Japanese snow monkeys in the wild and just as Hara predicted, they've since become a major tourist attraction in the region.
The park officially opened in 1964, and in 1970 a photo of a group of snow monkeys bathing in the hot spring appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine. During the 1998 Nagano Olympics, everyone from athletes and officials to media professionals covering the games visited the nearby park and word began spreading around the world of the famous bathing monkeys.
Jigokudani Monkey Park is in a fairly remote location, and they say on their website that there are no fences keeping the snow monkeys in the park. The monkeys are still wild animals and they come and go as they please, so whether or not you'll visit when a group of monkeys have come down for a bath is entirely up to chance and nature.
Fortunately, the park has set up a 24-hour livestream of the monkey's hot spring, so if you can't make it out to the park yourself, you can still enjoy the cuteness of it all from anywhere in the world.
Now that you've checked out the adorableness of the Japanese snow monkeys relaxing in the hot springs of Jigokudani Monkey Park, read up on how wild monkeys helped a lost tourist survive the wilderness of the Amazon rainforest. Then, read about the Japanese island of Aoshima where feral cats outnumber the human inhabitants six-to-one.