How To Visit the Snow Monkeys Japan
Winter in Japan is a whole different experience. Not only can you go skiing in Niseko or Nagano, you can also visit one of countrey’s biggest attractions – the Snow Monkeys Japan! Basically a bunch of cheeky Japanese Macaque monkeys live in a valley here, and when it gets too cold, they all run down to a natural hot spring to escape the chilly temperatures. They couldn’t care less about humans so they chill in the pool as we look on in amazement. It’s a beautiful setting, and an amazing sight. The trip is possible as a day trip from Tokyo, but better if you take the train to Nagano, and then onwards to Yudanaka, from there it’s a short walk to the famous Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
How to get to the Snow Monkeys Japan at the Jigokudani snow monkey park
It’s about 3 hours from Tokyo if you time the trains right. The nearest big city is Nagano, but the park itself is on the outskirts of a small town called Yudanaka, check out the google map to get a better idea:
For me, I had organised my Japan Rail Pass through JTBUsa, they ship internationally and I picked mine up from my base in Bangkok and on we went. I’ll blog about that rail pass but it basically allows ‘free’ train travel throughout Japan apart from some smaller local, short trains. With my pass, I landed in Narita Airport, used my pass to travel for free to Tokyo (Ueno station, about 1 hour), then took the bullet train (Shinkansen), again for no charge, on to Nagano (about 80 minutes). Once there I had to buy a transfer ticket to Yudanaka (about 1 hour, $20). Without the pass, that would have cost me over $100, so I was loving it right from Day 1!
When it comes to accessing the park itself then, if you stay in Nagano, the next day you could transfer to Yudanaka (1 hour), then bus to the snow monkey park (20 mins), then walk to the monkeys (20 mins).
Or you can stay directly in Yudanaka, then it’s just a bus ride to the park in the morning, followed by the short hike.
Or you can do what we did, and stay at a traditional Japanese guest house right by the park (the best option!). So you have breakfast, and stroll 15 minutes straight to the park. Amazing, and more info on that below.
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, & When To Visit!
The park is actually pretty small, and the entry cost is an unbeatable 800Yen ($7.50!). Once you arrive at the bottom of the park, it’s about a 20-30 minute walk, a few steep steps for the first 200 m, then a gentle stroll for the rest of the journey, through the beautiful forest. If you come in winter, it’s like something out of Narnia, beautiful snow-capped trees and mountains. Finally you reach the ticket office, another small climb up 100m or so of steps, pay your money and you’re in!
After the ticket office, it’s just 200m walk to the small man-made pool that the monkeys are addicted to. If you come at the opening time (it’s open from 9am to 4pm) then you’ll have the place to yourself, perhaps a handful of hardcore photographers. If you come from Nagano, or a day trip from Tokyo, it’ll still be a great experience, but there’ll be a lot more people there.
Best time to visit the Jigokudani Snow Monkeys Japan
The best season to visit the snow monkeys Japan is December to March, when there is snow. January and February being particularly good with the best chance of snow! The park itself opens each day at 9am until 4pm. It’s actually open all year round, but the snow monkeys aren’t snow monkeys when it’s June! Personally I’d save this for when you’re in Japan in Winter.
NOTE: You can’t bathe in the hot springs with the monkeys, I know a lot of people think it’s possible, but it’s not, sorry! 🙁
Where to Stay To See the Snow Monkeys Japan
Back in my broke days, pre-blog, I would have stayed in a cheap hostel in Nagano, the city closest to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. That’s your cheapest option, it’s a big city, so there are plenty of options. That means of course you’ll struggle to be amongst the first in the park because you’re at least 2 hours away, door to door, from the monkeys. But I remember what traveling on a hard core budget is like, so that’s still a great option if you’re watching the pennies.
The best option for this once in a lifetime experience is to stay as close to the park as possible, and if possible, to stay in a traditional Roykan (a traditional Japanese guest house).
I have wanted to visit the snow monkeys for years, so I wanted to do it in the most authentic, most amazing way possible. That means being the first in the park, it means sleeping on a (very, very comfortable) floor old-school Japanese style, it means private onsens with snow surrounding the hot spring, Japanese meals each morning and evening. I had taken my girlfriend and my mum too, so I wanted this to be a truly special memory. There are a few Ryokans dotted around but there is one very special one, the Jinpyokaku Honten.
The Jinpyokaku Honten is over 100 years old, and is often used by Japans top writers and artists. It’s a small, personal place with only 6 rooms, so it feels homely but with all the best facilities you can imagine (including wifi in every room!). The private onsen in the biggest room is a great touch, but the onsen for the whole venue is spectacular. It houses a male-only indoor onsen, and a female-only indoor onsen, then a shared outdoor onsen. Laying back with your loved ones, snow surrounding you, easing off the hike to the monkeys is a memory I’ll honestly never forget.
When you check into the Jinpyokaku Honten, you get taken to your private quarters within the Ryokan. They’ll have an area set-up, traditional style for tea and for heating, during turn down service, when you come back to your private quarters , the room will have switched to a sleeping room. We had separate sleeping sections for my mum and us which was great.
The staff are just fantastic, they speak more than enough English to organise everything wonderfully, and they encourage you to use the local clothing they provide. When I dreamt of staying in an authentic guest house, and losing myself in the snow monkey park, this was it. Loving it. With the prices, dinner and breakfast are both included so get ready to eat. It’s course after course of food. I’m vegetarian and they tailored the menu perfectly, and my mum loved all the sushi and sashimi.
I spent 2 nights here and loved every second. The private onsen, the traditional clothes, the staff, the beautiful setting but the best thing of all is the sheer proximity of the Ryokan to the Snow Monkey Park, it’s literally 10/15 minutes away, maybe closer so you literally can be the first people in the park. It’s closer than every other guest house in the region and that’s just something that’s unbeatable. If you’re coming to the snow monkeys, I’d massively recommend going all out and having the full experience. You won’t regret it.