[From May Issue 2015]
At Jigokudani Yaen-koen (Monkey Park) in Nagano Prefecture there are macaque monkeys known for their habit of bathing in hot springs. Visited by tourists the world over, these macaques are called “snow monkeys” in English.
The Park has some rules for visitors. Feeding the monkeys is forbidden because they can attack tourists for food. Touching the monkeys and prolonged eye contact isn’t allowed either because they will become wary. You can bring neither dogs nor cats with you. The monkeys are unafraid of humans and aren’t bothered by the tourists’ excited cries nor flash photography because visitors have always followed these rules.
The monkeys of Jigokudani used to flee as soon as they saw humans. In those days, some locals tried to exterminate them because they were running amok in fields after their habitat was lost to mountain and forest development schemes. Couldn’t there be a way to protect the farms and people’s livelihoods, while also protecting the monkeys and their living environment? Those who thought this way tried to keep the monkeys from going to the farms by creating a feeding site in Jigokudani far from any human habitation.
At that time Jigokudani was a small resort town with only one old inn and a vigorous hot spring. If its monkeys, its un-spoilt natural habitat and hot spring were turned into tourist attractions, the municipality would reap the economic benefits. This idea, which predated the emergence of ecotourism, kick started the effort to get the monkeys used to humans. With help from the inn, the locals successfully fed the monkeys and five years later in 1964, the park opened.
The monkey bath was created after baby monkeys started playing in the open-air bath of the spa inn – that had been lending its support to the park. Today, the park has open-air baths for the monkeys where many of them bathe on cold days. People visit in droves to take pictures. In this way, photos taken there have won prizes both in and outside Japan and created quite a buzz. In recent years this has led to an increase in the number of winter visitors and foreign tourists.
Though some might think the park is a winter attraction, it’s actually open throughout the year. It’s not only for tourists, but is also an institution for education and research. In the spring baby monkeys are born one after the other. Their hair is still black and you can witness the charming spectacle of suckling babies cradled in their mother’s arms. In the summer, you can see them enthusiastically playing around, independent from their mothers.
As records of the name and mother of each and every monkey covering the past 50 years have been kept by the park, university researchers visit for fieldwork from within and without Japan. The park is also used by elementary and junior high school students for outdoor classes. To get to the park, it’s a two-kilometer half-hour walk on a mountain trail from the dedicated Monkey Park parking lot. Hiking clothes will therefore be necessary and you’ll need to prepare for cold temperatures in wintertime.
Text: SAZAKI Ryo