During the winter months, the mountainous area of Nagano, in Japan, is famous not only for skiing and snowboarding, but also for bathing macaques, who hang out in their own private hot spring
To most people, Nagano is best known as the host city of the 1998 Winter Olympics. And if it's winter sports you're after, Nagano is one of the best places to visit, with ski and snowboard resorts in abundance, all easily accessed and simple to reserve. The Winter Games - and the consquent increase in tourism - left quite a Western footprint on the area; there is far more English signage in the Nagano countryside than in other, similar rural areas, and a surprising number of hotel and hostel workers speak at least a smattering of English.
However, it's not only winter sports that attract people to Nagano. The prefecture is a landlocked, mountainous area in the centre of Japan, which is home to a great number of hot springs, or onsen. One of the most famous onsen locations has to be the town of Yudanaka. Located about three-quarters of an hour from Nagano city, and about two and a half hours from Tokyo, Yudanaka is a small town in the Japanese Alps. In summer, it's an agricultural area that specialises in apples and jams, and in the winter it's best known for its hot springs as well as being a winter sports resort. There are plenty of hotels and hostels to suit different budgets, and more than a few rotenburo - outdoor onsen. More importantly, it's also where Jigokudani (Hell's Valley) can be found.
At first glance, the literal translation of Jigokudani seems a little unbefitting. The valley is covered in snow for one-third of the year, with an average winter temperature of minus three degrees. It's not quite the traditional hellish image of fire and brimstone. In fact, the name originally comes from the steam that billowed out from the sheer mountainside, which gave the first settlers in the region the impression of hell just beneath the surface.
Nowadays, Jigokudani is far from hellish, especially for the native macaque population. Since 1964, the valley has been the site of a dedicated conservation area, which focuses on the preservation and study of the 'snow monkeys'. The valley's forested areas are mostly untouched, and development has been kept to a minimum, save for a few paths, roads and small buildings.
The monkeys are looked after and fed daily by the Yaen Koen (Monkey Park) staff, and - as if that wasn't enough - are provided with their very own onsen to bathe in. During Nagano's four-month cold, snowy winter, the monkeys can often be found half asleep in the steaming hot spring, their arms lolling over the sides of the bath, eyelids drooping and heads nodding. The number of macaques is astonishing, as is the popularity of the onsen: at any one time the pool might contain 20 to 30 macaques, with about the same number strolling around the edge or playing in the snow. Different generations and family members bathe together, and it seems that the onsen is a communal experience for the monkeys, not just a winter convenience.
As one watches the monkeys, it's all too easy to envision relationships and personalities for them. The love between doting, maternal macaques and their tiny, clinging babies seems obvious; and one can clearly see displays of loyalty and respect between male macaques as they groom each other in the steaming water.
Time is easy to kill in Jigokundani, either by simply watching the macaques or by photographing them. Photography is allowed (even encouraged) and the bathing monkeys are willing, docile subjects. The macaques don't seem to mind if you get near them, so there are plenty of opportunities for memorable travel pictures.
The proximity to the macaques is something that is taken advantage of by both professional photographers and tourists alike. The popularity of snow monkey photography is apparent wherever you go in Yudanaka; on train advertisements, in hotels, and in and around the park itself. Competitions and exhibitions are common, and it's not hard to understand why this is such a photography hotspot.
Nowhere else could the monkeys be viewed so intimately. There are no barriers or bars, and you don't have to watch the macaques from a distance; how close you get is really your choice. Although there are a number of warnings to remind visitors how wild and unpredictable the macaques are, in practice they seemed downright apathetic about their audience. Through years of observation, they've become indoctrinated to camera flashes and indifferent towards coos of "Kawaii!" ("Cute!") from the Japanese.
It has to be remembered that this is their valley, their winter, and their onsen. Any visitors to the park are only there to watch. It's an amazing opportunity to view the macaques at such close quarters, and it's surprising how easily a couple of hours slip away. Before you know it, your feet are cold, your camera is full, and your fingers are freezing from the chilly winter breeze. Time to take a leaf out of our not-so-distant relatives' book and head to one of Yudanaka's many hot springs, to find out what all the fuss is about.