Growing up in Montana, I’ve had my fair share of wildlife experiences. Every evening as the sun set, we watched from our kitchen as our local beaver glided down the Missouri River. My father not so secretly cursed him for chewing our birch trees. I’ve seen bears on hikes in Glacier Park and buffalo that backed up traffic in Yellowstone. Despite this, I think the most joyful display of wildlife I have witnessed to date was at the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park this past weekend. It was just lucky my new camera came in time for me to get some photos of these cuties.
The Monkey Park is a bit out of the way, you need to take the half hour bus ride from Nagano station and proceed to hike for about a mile and a half. In the serene mountains of the so called Hell’s Valley with snow softly falling, the hike was a welcome reprieve from all of life’s noise. Walking that morning, it was so still, so perfect, I swear I could hear the snow fall.
The name Hell’s Valley was given to this area due to the steam and boiling water that comes out of the frozen ground. This group of about 160 to 200 monkeys has been living there since 1964 when local Japanese saw them in the area and built them a large onsen or hot spring bath where they warm themselves in the 122F degree water.
It doesn’t take much time observing the monkeys to pick up on their distinct personalities. They play, seemingly whitewashing each other in the snow. Some more private monkeys keep to themselves and hunt through the snow for bark and stay out of the fray. Mothers tenderly care for their young, picking out fleas and keeping them warm.
None of the monkeys seem to notice or care about the humans surrounding them. They brush your leg as they run by and sit quietly inches away from you. As much as I would have loved to touch or pet them, they do not tolerate even seemingly benign advances. They quickly scream and swat away those brazen enough to attempt petting them.
My fingers froze as I clicked away on my camera, but I could have stayed all day as the happiness I felt being there filled my heart to the brim. My stomach was growling and warm ramen and a bus to take us to the ski hill waited at the bottom of the hike. It was sad to leave but I have a feeling that for years and years to come, thinking of them will always make my heart smile.