The name Jigokudani translates as “Valley of Hell”, due to the steam and boiling water that bubbles out of small crevices in the frozen ground. It’s surrounded by steep cliffs and dense forest. With its heavy snowfall, elevation of 850 metres, and access only via a narrow two kilometre forest footpath, the place has become well-known and draws great crowds during the winter months.

The mountain ranges of the Japanese Alps in Nagano Prefecture.

The area is famous for its large population of Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata), more commonly referred to as snow monkeys, that arrive in the valley during the winter. During the warmer months of the year they wander elsewhere in the national park. In the winter, the monkeys descend from the steep cliffs and forests to bask in the warm waters of the hot springs (onsen), returning to the security of the forests in the evenings.

Jigokudani is about as far north as it gets for monkeys. No primate, with the exception of humans, is known to live in a colder climate. And it gets pretty cold here — snow covers the ground for four months of the year, and the average winter temperature is -10º.

Monkeys eating wheat on top of a stone platform.

When I arrived early in the morning the gates were already open, and on my way in I passed signs prohibiting the use of selfie sticks or feeding of the animals. By this time the monkeys had already awoken and descended from the snowy woods for their morning meal.

Monkeys running along the river.
Jigokudani Monkey Park warden carries a bucket of wheat.

The monkeys here are considered to be free-ranging; their numbers move in and out of the valley depending on the season. In winter, when food is limited, the monkeys congregate in and around the onsens for warmth and the daily supply of food. However, they are still sometimes around even in the summer as they take the food provided and occasional baths in the pools constructed specifically for them to use.

Furry Devil. Baby monkey looking around after making loads of noise and fighting with its brothers.

The Snow Monkey Park story goes back to 1952 when many ski lifts were being built in the Shiga-kogen Highlands, just a few kilometres from Hell’s Valley. The building of these lifts encroached on the monkeys’ habitat and pushed them into the Jigokudani area. In 1963 the future founder of the park, a passionate hiker, was hiking through the area when he came across a troop of snow monkeys. As a result of his admiration for the monkeys, he decided to show the furry vermin off to the world and created the park.

Jigokudani Onsen Korakukan.

The locals’ discontent started at the Japanese Inn of Korakukan, located in Jigokudani area. It was primarily known for the health benefits of its hot spring waters, here the monkeys clambered into the water to collect floating soybeans and were occasionally fed by people too. The behaviour was copied by other monkeys in the troop, and it soon became common for the monkeys to retreat to the hot springs when the harsh winter arrived. This marked the start of the cultural practice of bathing for this group of primates. It also saw problems arise with unsanitary conditions due to the amounts of faeces left in water by the furry visitors.

The monkeys’ changing habitat was unpleasant, not only for the snow monkeys, but also for the inn owners. It has also created problems for local agriculture. The monkeys’ new habitat was closer to the farms than before and so they often ate the crops, this soon angered farmers and caused them to launch an all-out monkey hunt.

Troop leader calmly sits on top of the hill alone.

When the situation became untenable a solution was offered; a special hot spring reservoir with the perfect depth was built exclusively for the monkeys by the owner of the park. Slowly but surely the monkeys moved to the monkey onsen.

Soaking in volcanic water the monkeys became an overnight sensation as “the only monkeys that bathe in onsen in Japan”. Soon after it became a business seducing tonnes of tourists from all over the world to view the wet primates.

Time passed and the monkeys gradually got used to people. Today, compared to the past, these forests are no longer inhabited by wild monkeys. Fifty years on, with their daily winter hot onsen and meals the new generation of macaques have replaced the previously “wild” monkeys.  Just like the deer in Nara, on the one hand feeding the monkeys wheat might be good, but on the other, it takes away their natural instinct to hunt and gather. The monkeys here are fed a mix of raw barley, wheat and soybeans three times a day, at set times, as well as getting fruits in the summer. The animals are drawn here by the free food — which also work as bait for human entrainment — rather than looking for their daily food requirement without human help.

It seems unlikely that the park was originally established to domesticate animals and create a fenceless zoo, however in providing something that was designed by humans for humans the initial aim of the park has now shifted. Rather than trying to prevent the forced emigration of the local troop, caused as a result of the construction of ski resorts, the chosen solution was to tame the monkeys by creating a monkey pool and supplying food. The justification for this course of action “This will help monkeys to survive through harsh winters”. It would be untruthful to say the park was created purely to protect the monkeys from extreme cold during the winter seasons. The only protection humans can give to wild animal is protection from humans themselves. In reality, the natural monkey habitat doesn’t involve human help. Instead macaques find partners to keep each other warm, using social interaction and their thick fur to cuddle up together.

So as long as monkeys are lured by park wardens, hundreds of macaques will remain in the hot springs area all year round. Over time — while keeping visitors entertained — the macaques will move away from their natural habitat and eventually become domesticated by humans.

Red-faced monkey chilling in the onsen.