Because it’s been on my bucket list since we started planning our amazing trip to Japan, we visited Jigokudani National Park. And, I’m so glad we did – it was such a fun day trip from Tokyo!
We took a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano – our first experience using our JR (Japan Rail) Pass for a long trip and our first time on the high-speed trains. What a journey!
The commute to Jigokudani National Park took us just over 1.5 hours on the train, 40 minutes on a bus and 30-40 minutes walk through the forest. It was around 5 degrees Celsius, so I was grateful that I packed my warm socks and boots before we left London!
The Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani National Park
Literally translated, Jigokudani means Hell’s Valley. So its a little surprising that it is home to some of the cutest creatures!
Other than humans, Japanese macaques, are the most northern living primates in the world. They are also world-famous primates since they’ve been featured in BBC’s Life documentary and the US magazine Life.
Mainly dominant females and youngsters make up around 200 – 250 macaques living in the Jigokudani Monkey Park, and they enjoy the most exclusive of spa privileges.
The hot volcanic baths help maintain the macaques body temperature throughout the winter. They pamper each other with the full treatment, bonding, grooming and bathing in 42 degree Celsius geothermal hot baths to survive the five long months of winter.
In the summer they live off fruit and plants, but in the dead of winter there is little food and they gnaw on bark or search for seeds in the snow. In the winter, their fur coats grow thicker as the temperature drops and they consume only half the calories they do in the summer. They rely on body fat to see them through the season and conserve energy by not doing much.
Weaned at 24 months, youngsters scramble for food in the rocks and surrounding hills and play in the brutal cold. They are the only monkeys in the world to make snowballs – and they do it for fun! Which probably helps the bleak season to pass by more quickly.
Things to know before you visit Jigokudani National Park
The Jigokudani National Park is open 365 days in a year.
Summer opening hours (April – October): 8:30 am-5:00 pm.
Winter opening hours (November – March): 9:00 am-4:00 pm.
Park admission fee: Adult ¥500, Child ¥250
Bring sturdy and warm footwear in winter – it’s very cold and could be snowing. During spring and autumn it can get very wet and muddy, so be prepared for your shoes to get dirty. And, in summer, expect the park to smell like monkey!
You are not allowed to feed the monkeys.
The hot spring is not for human use. Bathing with the monkeys is strictly prohibited.
Cameras and video cameras are allowed, but please be wary using selfie sticks and getting close to the wild monkeys.
The Snow Monkey Pass
You can purchase a Snow Monkey Pass at the Nagano Dentetsu train station (a subway in the basement).
The Snow Monkey Pass is great value for money and gives you several options to visit the snow monkeys in Jigokudani National Park as well as other small towns in the surrounding area.
The pass includes one day unlimited use of the Nagano Dentetsu Line (train), the Nagaden Express Bus, and the local Nagaden bus from Yudanaka station.
You can use the pass on the Nagano Dentetsu Line (train) to stop at Obuse Station, Shinshu-Nakano Station, Suzaka Station and Gondo Station.
The Snow Monkey Pass is ¥2,900 per person and it covers train and/or bus fare from Nagano to the park as well as the entrance fee.
How to get to Jigokudani National Park from Tokyo
You can visit Jigokudani National Park (Jigokudani Yaenkoen) very easily in a day from Tokyo, though it will be a long day.
First, catch the Nagano Shinkansen (high-speed train) from Ueno station in Tokyo to Nagano train station, 209 km away. There are 53 trains a day starting from 6.16 am, wit the last return train departing Nagano station at 10.08 pm. This leg will take approximately 1.5 hours and cost around ¥8,000 per person or is free with a JR Pass.
Once you reach Nagano Station, you have two options (both options are included in your Snow Monkey Pass but you can also purchase tickets individually):
- Take the Nagaden Express Bus (from bus stop 23 or 24) directly to the Snow Monkey Park bus stop. (The bus takes approximately 40 minutes. ¥1,400 per person. The bus leaves Nagano Station at 8.15am, 9.05am, 10.15am, 11.15am, 12.40pm, and 2.25pm.)
- Take the local Nagano Dentetsu-Nagano Line (train) from Nagano station to Yudanaka station (approximately 45 minutes. ¥1,260 per person. There are approximately five direct trains that depart Nagano Station before 2pm). Then, take the local Nagaden bus from Yudanaka Station to the Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop (approximately 10-15 minutes. ¥310 per person. There are approximately 8-10 buses per hour. The bus does not operate on weekends or public holidays, or for two weeks in late December and early January).
From the bus stop, follow the signs to walk approximately 300m up inclining residential streets to the entrance of the National Park. At the entrance is a ramen restaurant, toilets, car park and an information centre and gift shop that also rents shoes, some warm clothes and walking sticks to those who might need them.
From the entrance, it is a 1.6km walk (up a slight incline in parts) to get to the snow monkeys and entrance gate. Here, you will pay a fee to enter and are asked to leave any plastic bags, important belongings and food in the free lockers provided. The monkeys have been known to snatch items from tourists. There is also a small waiting room with a heater and information about the monkeys and their living habits, and free toilets.
What else can you do near Nagano?
After you have visited the snow monkeys, you can enjoy a walk through the very old street of the nearby Shibu Onsen and take bath or foot bath, or have a lunch – ramen and sobu buckwheat noodles are a local speciality. The street is 700 years old and full of hot springs, ryokans, guests wearing Yukata (casual kimono), and locals dressed in kimono.
Obuse is another popular place to visit via the Nagano Dentetsu train line. It was the residence of Katsushika Hokusai, the artist who created “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” one of the most well-known pieces of Japanese art in the world. You can see many of his original works in the Hokusai-kan museum, and the town’s historical streets are dotted with other art museums and cafes.
At Shinshu-Nakano Station you can visit a museum in Nakano dedicated to the valuable and traditional Japanese clay dolls. The museum is on a hill of Higashiyamakoen and it has 1900 dolls on display.
See more from our ‘Journey through Japan’
Check out some of my previous posts from our four days in Tokyo as we settled into our traditional Japanese-style room at Shin-Okubo Sekitei, explored the izakaya in Koenji, ate plenty of incredible food, visited the world’s largest fish market, learned the all about a traditional tea ceremony and explored the sites of the capital via a bike tour.
Follow our journey as we venture into the Japanese Alps, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima and Hakone!
Follow @jacquitravels on Twitter and Instagram, and Never Ending Honeymoon on Facebook for live updates and photos. And, stay tuned for more details on the blog – this is going to be an epic journey through Japan!