The Japanese macaques, also called ‘snow monkeys’, are generally known for their habit to delight in long hot spring baths during winter time. The snow monkeys, with their characteristic red face and grayish fur, are the most iconic animals in northern Japan. Unlike their relatives, these Japanese macaques bathe in the hot springs to keep warm on cold winter days. Studies point out that this practice also helps the animals relax and as a result, the snow monkeys have low levels of stress compared to congeners which do not follow this practice.
The snow monkeys reside in the snowy areas for most part of the year. Such regions are found in the northern parts of Japan and are so cold that very few primates dare to step in. Moreover, these are the only animals known to enjoy bathing in hot springs. The bathing monkeys can be observed from nearby in the Jigokudani park where they reside, and this spectacular sight attracts over five hundred visitors per day.
Rafaela Takeshita, who is head of a research group, reported that just like in humans, bathing in the hot springs has a stress-reducing effect on the Japanese macaques. This behavior was first observed in 1963 when a young Japanese macaque was seen in one of the traditional baths (an onsen complex near a hotel) on a snowy day. This practice was followed by the rest of the group. It was also found that these monkeys enjoy bathing more in the hot springs during winter than during to summer or spring. The dominant females were found to enjoy this pleasure for longer periods.
In 2003, the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park board built several exclusive baths for the monkeys for hygiene purposes. One in three female Japanese macaques regularly uses these thermal waters during winter. As the monkey are fed by the park attendants, they can be observed all year round.
“The dominant females enjoy the hot springs for longer periods”.
Unfortunately, during my visit in late March there was no snow around and just a few monkeys bathed in the hot springs.
How to get there:
From Nagano Station (I used the Japan Rail pass to get to Nagano), take the Nagano Dentetsu Bus (Nagaden) with the direction to Shiga Kogen. It will make a stop at Kanbayashi Onsen Guchi, from there it is about 25-30 minutes walking to the entrance of the monkey park.
The Snow Monkey 1-Day Pass is included in the bus fare price.
I stayed in Nagano at the: Hotel Metropolitan Nagano, which I would recommend because it is located very close to the Train station and because it had excellent rooms and service.
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