Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park for Families
This is really a two-part review On the Shiga Kogen area so I highly recommend that you read the first part of this review before proceeding.
Jigokudani Snow Monkey park is a 3 mile or so walk through a pine forest in the snow to a hot spring where the Japanese Macaque monkeys AKA “Snow Monkeys” live. These monkeys can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The monkeys typically live high in the mountains but come down from the mountains during the winter to bask in the natural hot springs of the Shiga Kogen Province. This is as close to monkeys as you’re ever going to get.
Getting to the Park: The Park is half way between Nagano and Shiga Kogen ski area. So if you’re staying in Shiga Kogen you’ll be taking the bus out to the foothills forty five minutes or so down the mountain away form your resort. CHECK the bus schedule BEFORE you go. We misread that thing and got stuck doing nothing for three hours when we were done with out monkey escapade.
The “Hike”: I use the term hike loosely. It’s a very nice well-defined flat path. The hot spring is good mile plus walk on packed snow from the bus station. You will not be bringing a stroller or a bag or anything of that nature due to the snow cover and stairs so make sure the kids can walk it. The walk was easy enough that my 4 year old could do it if she weren’t so annoyed by walking. My 7 year old regularly knocks out hikes much longer and harder. Footwear is reasonably important here. I wore my trusty Ecco GTX boots and they were fine. My buddy wore some tennis shoes. They were uh, adequate I guess and quite amusing for me to watch as he was slip sliding away. There is also a small gift shop a little further up that sells el cheapo cleats to go on the bottom of your shoes if you are ill equipped. I wouldn’t recommend them. A number of people that purchased them had them break along the way. The walk is absolutely beautiful. You’ll walk through a huge pine tree forest along a path with a 200-foot embankment and a running stream in the valley as long a stream next to the path. The one on the path is runoff but hey, it’s still nice for the ambiance. It’s quiet enough to hear a pin drop aside from the occasional snow falling from the rustling pine trees. The path opens up to a house on the side of a mountain and a valley. This area is picturesque from a distance but a bit rundown on closer inspection. Once you get to the top you have to pay the entrance fee.. Good thing we had some cash on us, and by “We” I mean Dave. Thanks Pal!
The Monkeys and the “Hot Spring”: The monkeys have zero fear of people. I watched them being fed by some handlers so they seem to be somewhat domesticated. The hot spring that they hang out in is apparently man made as the bottom was quite clearly made of concrete and there were PVC pipes about the place. Supposedly, the original spring was taken up by people who built a house over it or at least that the story I was told. Anyway it’s still neat and worth seeing. The kids will LOVE the monkeys. They get right on top of you…literally. They had a bit of a scuffle with one another and they ran into my leg. They walk right up to you and you can walk right up to them. They are quite active and fun to watch. Every photographer on the planet wants a great shot of the snow monkeys so be prepared for some curmudgeons hogging the best viewing spots with gigantic lenses. All my photos were taken with a 28mm prime lens (about the same field of view as an IPhone) to give you an idea just how close we were to the monkeys the entire time. Just don’t go in thinking this is a totally natural environment like we did and you won’t be disappointed. I didn’t have the opportunity to bring my children but I will definitely be bringing them back. This would be an amazing experience for them.
As for food: There is a little restaurant at the beginning of the walk that was quite a nice little spot. We opted to eat there on the way back. There is an art museum of some kind at the base of the hike right by where the bus drops you off that has a café in it. This was closed for whatever reason when we were there but it may be interesting to kill some time.
All in all I would definitely recommend both Shiga Kogen and Jigokudani snow Monkey Park for families of all ages. The whole area is nice quiet stress fee vacation spot with a lot of downtime and some exciting skiing and nature opportunities. It’s an experience that I won’t soon forget, thanks to the scar I see everyday in the mirror, I mean the unforgettable memories of the snow monkeys and the picturesque snow falling in the beautiful mountain range of Shiga Kogen.