Landing in Japan, my traveling companion Matt and I were on a mission. Forget majestic Mt. Fuji and the sacred Buddhist temples. We wanted to see the Japanese Macaque monkeys of Hell’s Valley.
When we constantly brought up our desire to see monkeys to our Japanese hosts, we were asked, “Why?” One host warned, “They are mean.”
That didn’t matter. We had seen a famous “National Geographic” photo depicting monkeys soaking in an onsen and figured we were closer to them now than if we were back in the U.S.
At the beginning of each week during our month-long stay, our host families asked what we wanted to do. “See the monkeys” was our first response. This was always followed by laughter and, “I’ll have to see if that is possible.”
It wasn’t until our last weekend in Japan that we were able to do what we wanted. Since everyone had seemed unhelpful in our quest, we knew the monkeys must be something special. Our exchange program had ended and Matt and I changed our flights to leave a day later in order to see the monkeys.
Early that morning we departed Tokyo and rode the rail, a local train and a bus for about four hours to spend an hour with our forbidden fruit, the monkeys of Hell’s Valley.
Excitement grew when we finally reached the visitors center of Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park, also known as Hell’s Valley. We grabbed a couple of rice squares to munch on and paid little attention to the warnings. Matt was tasked with carrying the white paper bag with the rice squares. Within moments of leaving the visitors center, a monkey ran out of the bushes toward Matt, screaming and reaching for the bag with both paws.
Startled, Matt jumped back and held the bag up. It was like playing keep away from a small child as the monkey jumped, screeched and flared its fangs trying to grab the bag. Matt tried to run away but the monkey followed. I stood watching, not knowing what to do.
All I kept thinking was, our Japanese friends were right, monkeys ARE mean!
Seeing our distress, a man came running up yelling something in Japanese and flailing his arms. We finally understood and Matt followed the instructions of hiding the bag in his jacket. In an instant, the monkey was tamed. It could no longer see the bag and disappeared into the bushes.
We proceeded into the park and reached our summit. Hundreds of tan, furry lumps surrounded were everywhere. Monkeys sat on the mountain side, walked past us gripping their babies, played chase and soaked in the onsen. In some ways, it was like watching children at the playground.
With our mission complete, we left the park feeling accomplished. On our way down the trail, we met a family of four heading towards the park. The two small children were eating pretzels and I tried to warn them of the attack monkeys.
“Saru! Saru!” (Japanese for “monkey”) I yelled and pointed in the direction of the park.
Apparently, the family thought I was just excited about seeing the monkeys. They replied with smiles and nods, “Hai, saru, hai.” (“Yes, monkey.”)
I gave up trying to warn them and realized they would just have to learn monkeys are mean.
Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park
Getting There by Train
From Tokyo, use the JR Nagano Shinkansento Nagano. In Nagano, take the Nagano Dentatsu Line (a local train) to Yudanaka. Pick up a bus in Yudanaka to Kanbayashi Onsen. It’s a 30-minute uphill walk to the entrance of Jigokudani Yaenkoen.
Note: Although tempting, humans cannot sit side by side with the monkeys in the onsen.
This story was originally published in To Japan with Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur (To Asia with Love)