Experiencing the Hot Spring Spa Loving Snow Monkeys of JapanPublished :
Having been in the health and wellness industry for more than 20 years, and specifically the hot tub/spa market for the past 6, when I was invited to go to Japan for a ski trip this past December, I quickly did some research to make sure I made time to add into our itinerary a stop visiting the world famous Hot Spring Spa loving Snow Monkeys. It’s hard to express my excitement when I learned our ski resort was close to Nagano, Japan and the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, where these beloved hot spring loving monkeys live and socialize.
I have often seen pictures of these little furry hot tubbers as memes, in articles and animal documentaries. They not only are beyond adorable, but they always look like they have reached a Zen Master-like state of calm and relaxation – something we all should strive to achieve on a daily basis.
Before I get into my personal experience visiting the snow monkeys, I wanted to share the interesting story about how and why the park was created and the natural hot springs that they enjoy daily.
Many years ago, a local man named Soga Hara – who worked at the Nagano Electric Railway and was an avid hiker – came across the original troop of monkeys in an area called Jigokundani, where the terrain was steep and treacherous and where you will find many natural hot springs. He was understandably taken by the fur-covered monkeys.
At this time, their forest home was fast being threatened by logging for development in the area. As the monkeys were forced to relocate, they ended up in the surrounding farmlands and became quite the pests as they began to destroy the crops. Sadly, the farmers began to legally hunt them as they appeared on their land and in local villages.
But a funny thing happened as the monkeys became more and more frequent visitors to the villages in Jigokundani. They are extremely smart, inquisitive and keen creatures and they began to observe the local humans enjoying a centuries-old tradition of taking an “onsen.”
The Japanese have known the benefits of hot water for centuries. The Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama Shikoku, for example, has a 3,000-year history and Japan has more than 2,300 natural hot springs. Onsens in Japan are not only for all the health and wellness benefits of hot water, physically and mentally, but an onsen hot spring is steeped in the Japanese culture. It is a lifestyle that men, women and children of all ages enjoy on regular if not daily basis. This really makes the Japanese pioneers of hot water therapy and relaxation through water. We have learned a lot from them … and the monkeys did too.
By watching the villagers soaking in their onsens, the snow monkeys began to mimic this behavior and started to enjoy a daily hot spring soak for themselves. There is nowhere else in the world that monkeys engage in this behavior, making these macaques very rare and this whole experience so unique. Watching them is truly a fun and once in a lifetime bucket list adventure.
As anyone can imagine, the sight of the monkeys in the hot springs was an instant attraction to everyone in the villages, but having the monkeys enter their onsen guesthouses was not the safest for the monkeys or humans. So, in 1964, the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park was established, with the creation of the world’s only private “monkey only” hot spring. This was an effort to provide the monkeys with a safe environment to live, play and call home. This also became an area where curious humans could visit and observe.
I am one of the curious humans who was going to make a special trip to this park. It’s very easy to find information on visiting the Park, how to get there and the best times to visit. These monkeys really are global sensations. There are many tour companies that you can sign up for various tours, most of them leaving out of Nagano, Japan, home of the 1996 Winter Olympic Games. We had a rental car, so we decided to drive.
Upon arrival to the parking lot, you begin to see the signs directing you to the entrance to the park. As you begin your journey to the entrance, you walk into the forest where the trees are tall, lush and green and the air is fresh. It truly is a very beautiful hike. It takes about 20 minutes and would be easy for most ages and athletic abilities. Although I was there in December, there was still very minimal snowfall. In the winter months when snow is on the ground, proper footwear would be a good idea and appropriate outdoor attire also is suggested.
All along the hike, you see sign after sign reminding you that any kind of food or drink is strictly prohibited. Even a plastic bag must be secured and put away. Monkeys are extremely inquisitive and highly motivated by anything that might resemble food. For the safety of all, human and monkey alike, it’s best to keep everything hidden and secured.
Once you arrive at the actual entrance, you pay a small fee and pass through an educational building where you can learn all about the snow monkey troop and their long, interesting history. There are interactive displays and pictures and names of the hot tubbing residents of the forest, or you can bring home a unique souvenir.
Another 500 feet of walking and you arrive at the hot springs – and it did not disappoint! There is one large hot spring pool that was constructed in the mountain side. This truly is an authentic natural and geothermally heated hot spring. Japan is a volcanic island, so the natural hot springs water is plumbed directly into the pool and is filled with rich therapeutic minerals.
As you approach the monkey spa, all you need to do is stop for a moment and you will notice the hillside will begin to move as the little monkeys come into focus. The longer you look, the more you see. They were everywhere. But the most fascinating were the ones sitting in their onsens, taking in all the health and wellness benefits that come along with soaking in hot water.
Just like us, you see monkeys of all ages in the water. What a sight to see some of these furry creatures swimming around and others letting the weight of the world melt away.
We visited for about 45 minutes, carefully studying their faces, watching the littles ones splashing around, and really just enjoying every second of this experience.
On our drive back, naturally we decided that “monkey see, monkey do,” – so we needed to visit an onsen for ourselves and relax, just as the macaques were doing in the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park.
If you are planning a visit to Japan, this is an absolute must and this is proof that hot tubbing really is for everybody, even the snow monkey bodies!
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