There were three major reasons for me to travel all over Japan for two weeks: the famous cherry blossom season, the anime/manga scene and, of course, the cute snow monkeys in Japan. It turned out, that getting to the Nagano Monkey Park wasn’t hard at all when you start from Tokyo, maybe not a day trip but definitely worthy of anyone’s bucketlist. So here is everything you need to know about a dream visit to the snow monkey park Jigokudani near Nagano.
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How to Get to the Nagano Snow Monkeys
Via Train to Nagano
If you have a Japanese Railpass, you can easily catch the JR to Nagano. From Tokyo, for instance, it is the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen (via Nagano) (Kagayaki Hakutaka Asama). If you are coming from Osaka, you need to take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen NOZOMI to Nagoya and then change to the JR Chuo Line Limited Express to Nagano.
Via Bus to Nagano
If you don’t have the Railpass (you can only get it outside of Japan) or don’t want to pay for relatively expensive train tickets, why not take a bus? I often used WillerExpress and their buses are not only clean, they come equipped with pink plush seat, small TV screens and yellow Nintendo consoles. This way, you are entertained on any ride. Mostly, there are road stops as well and those are quite something in Japan. (Great souvenir shops, yummy food stations, giant and somewhat futuristic toilet facilities.)
Via Car to Nagano
In case you are driving, make your way to Shinshu Nakano IC, from there it is only 8km to the free parking area and another 30 minutes walk to the Nagano snow monkeys. To get to Shinshu Nakano from Tokyo, you need to head to Tsurugashima for 28km, then to Tsurugashima, Fujioka and Koshoku. If you want more detailed routes for Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, check out the official park page.
From Nagano to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park
In Nagano, you have several options to get to the snow monkey park. The best is to get a Nagano Snow Monkey Pass from the tourist information, which gives you included use of public transport and snow monkey park access for an entire day with one handy ticket. It’s good value.
Alternatively, you can hop on the Nagano Dentetsu Line Limited Express to Yudanaka Station and then the bus to the Kanbayashi Onsen Bus stop, or take the Express Bus to Shiga Kogen to the stop called Snow Monkey Park. From each bus stop, you will have to walk around 35 minutes to the park gates. In winter especially, the path can be slightly treacherous as it is narrow, slippery and at times covered with a sheet of ice. Come prepared with warm and grippy winter boots and schedule in extra walking time to be on the safe side with your schedule.
Address: Japan, 〒381-0401 Nagano Prefecture, Shimotakai District, Yamanouchi, Hirao, ６８４５
Phone: +81 269-33-4379
Opening hours: daily 9AM–4PM
Know this Before Entering the Snow Monkey Park
The Nagano snow monkeys are wild animals and the Nagano Monkey Park isn’t a zoo. In other words, do not get too close to the animals, never touch or feed them and heaven forbid, do not enter the hot thermal baths. Those are exclusively for the monkeys. If you want to copy them (because onsen are simply divine in winter), why not visit or even stay at the Jigokudani Onsen Korakukan nearby?
You can pay the entrance fee directly at the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park or show your ticket and enter. There are several paths leading you to the main spots of the snow monkeys in Japan, so do not miss out. As the animals aren’t caged and can roam freely, there cannot be a guarantee of seeing tons of grown or baby animals on any given day, let alone the typical scenes of the Nagano snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs.
What to Wear for a Visit to the Snow Monkeys in Japan
Depending on the season, you need to adjust your outfit. Since this isn’t a regular park or zoo, all you should bring into the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is yourself and your camera. You are allowed to bring your bags into the park but please do not have a picnic or snack session and be careful when opening your bags. You don’t want sneaky monkeys on you.
It can get pretty cold in winter and the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park doesn’t have the same weather as Nagano due to its mountainous location. Therefore, come in layered outfits with sturdy winter boots, warm clothes, a winter jacket, woolly hat and gloves. Generally it is a good idea to put on comfortable shoes or even hiking boots for the 30-40 minute walk towards and around the Nagano Monkey Park. Expect a lot of mud after wet days.
When Is the Best Time to See Snow Monkeys in Japan?
You can see the snow monkeys in Japan throughout the entire year with each season having its unique charm.
Winter, of course, is the most popular and most heavily photographed season. After all the Nagano snow monkeys look simply adorable with snowflakes swirling around their fluffy fur while looking super relaxed in the hot water.
In spring and summer, however, you will see newborn snow monkey babies clinging to their mothers’ fur. In autumn you can admire the small snow monkeys playing underneath the colourful canopies of the forest.
So you don’t have to plan your trip around the snow monkeys in Japan for your trip as they are naturally living in the park.
What is it Like to See Snow Monkeys in Japan?
Once I made it to the Nagano Monkey Park, everything was frosted. And my bliss was complete. Like a child I jumped into the high piles, investigated icicles and snowy twigs until a monkey just passed my path. Like frozen I stood still in my tracks. A snow monkey. And just one metre away. It did not even bother to look up as it decided to walk by me, nearly touching my legs. It was just a breadth away!
That’s when I noticed what was happening at the foot of the hill. I didn’t know where to look first. On one side were two play fighting baby monkeys, on the other a relaxed monkey who was thoroughly enjoying getting flees eaten off of him by his harem. And then there was a tiny Nagano snow monkey dancing on a horizontal pole between two rocks. So much cuteness overload.
After I spent ages glued to my spot in the snow monkey park, I suddenly wasn’t allowed to move away. A bunch of teenage monkeys had gathered around my feet and started a one-on-one wrestling match. n a big group hug. I didn’t know where to step. This would continue all the way to the pools (not that I would complain), where I would finally encounter the famous picture-perfect bathing monkeys.
One was having a nap and another one was curiously investigating his mirror image while a mother was holding her baby tight sitting on the edge of the gorge. Need I mention I went camera-crazy? The reflections on the super smooth water surface, the milky white steam and colour palette in icy blue was just too much for me and my travel companion soon went her way because I was utterly consumed and in love with everything.
Where to Stay to See the Snow Monkeys in Japan
If you want to get really close to the action, you can stay at the Jigokudani Onsen Korakukan. However, if you want to explore Nagano as well, I recommend going local. Japanese guesthouses, called ryokans, are an experience in themselves. Expect traditional houses and charming hosts, such as at Jizokan Matsuya Ryokan or Chuokan Shimizuya Ryokan. For a more fancy stay with excellent food, try the Mielparque Nagano.
Is Travelling to See the Snow Monkeys in Japan Worth it?
Now I wouldn’t just visit Japan to see cute animals. (Though that is entirely possible with pet cafes, cat islands, bunny villages, etc and I would understand.) But you can combine your trip to the Nagano snow monkeys easily to create a small itinerary, including the wonderful Nagano temple district and foodie street leading up to it, the samurai castle in Matsumoto and the UNESCO heritage sites in Nikko. It’s a great loop starting and ending in Tokyo. I definitely would love to revisit the Snow Monkeys in Japan on my next trip and am curious to know if you would, too.