The journey to Jigokudani from Tokyo was long but enjoyable and ended as our bus rolled up a snowy hillside and came to a stop outside a small wooden shelter. The bus driver began shouting some things to the passengers and we listened attentively to the string of Japanese that ended with “snow monkeys” in broken English. At the sound of this we stood up along with everyone else and shuffled out into the cold. After looking clueless for a few moments, we were lazily pointed in the direction of the park and anxiously began making our way further up the hillside, following the signs with little pictures of smiling monkeys on them to guide us. The signs eventually led us to a steep set of stairs towered over by a big banner adorned with pictures of bathing monkeys, our official welcome to the park.
Despite the icy state of the stairs, we opted to forego the crampons being sold at the foot in the hope that our boots would be sufficient enough to carry us up. Luckily, the hill was short and a rope laid alongside the stairs, both of which served to our advantage in getting up it easily without the traction of the crampons…frugality had won out this time. Once at the top of the hill, we were met with a scene out of a Christmas greeting card. The path, now long and flat, wound into a thick forest of cedar trees, whose branches still carried the burden of the latest snowfall, some of which would occasionally fall on our heads, creating the illusion of a blizzard.
It was exciting seeing snow again after nearly two years without it. Our enjoyment of it was aided by nostalgia and the fact that it was the kind of snow depicted in the movies, white and pure, a far cry from the gray, sloppy reality of a Midwestern winter. Without fail, snowballs were made and trees (and occasionally each other) were targeted as we slowly made our way along the path. After meandering for about 30 minutes, the forest cleared out into a valley whose edges we would zig-zag up to continue our hike through the park.
As we walked along, little by little, we would start to notice more people on the path. A person here. A family there. Some were on their way back from the park, parents clutching children who were excitedly recalling what they had both just seen. By that time, the trees and snow had become old news and our pace quickened in anticipation of what we knew was so near. Finally, we came to an area where a small crowd of people were huddled under a tree. As we followed their gazes up it, we got our first sight of the macaque monkeys that gave the park its fame.
As excited as we were to see it sitting perched in the tree, our attention was quickly diverted because another monkey would brush our leg, or walk by on the railing beside us. Everywhere we looked there were monkeys and as interested as we were in them, they couldn’t have cared less about us. An obstacle in their everyday life. If the rice that they snacked on wasn’t thrown from human hands, who knows if we would have been tolerated at all. For our sake though, we were, and not only that but able to interact with them in a way we had never been able to with wild animals before.
Determined not to overstep our boundaries though, we kept our distance, appreciating the monkeys from afar while on the lookout for the onsen, a Japanese hot spring, where the monkeys famously bathed. We only had to look as far as the crowd of people mushrooming out from a steaming cluster of rocks in the distance to know where to go.
Walking up to the onsen was like walking through the TV screen into a National Geographic special. All around the hot spring, monkeys lounged around in different states of indulgence. Some partook in gluttony, lapping up water and picking bugs, others in sloth, sitting on the rocks surrounding the water and soaking in the steam. Perhaps the smartest and most blissful looking of all though were the ones physically in the pool, most of them with their eyes closed, tuning out the world around them. Having just been to an onsen ourselves the night before, we felt a bit like voyeurs gazing in. This feeling wouldn’t last long however as the smell of monkey feces carried to our nostrils by the hot spring’s steam put an end to any trace of jealousy we were feeling.
Occasionally, a monkey would grow tired of the hot spring and climb out, fur soaked and steaming, and make its way through the crowd, which consisted of a slew of paparazzi, cameras ready and hanging on their every movement. Each time a monkey would do this, or anything that resembled exertion, a chorus of oohs and ahhs would accompany it. Despite this and our constant crowding around them, blocking their paths, and shoving cameras in their faces, the monkeys, for the most part, kept to themselves, scoffing at the attention being showered down on them.
This wasn’t always the case though, as Kate found out first hand what happens when the line of tolerance is crossed. Leaning in to take a picture of one particular monkey whose privacy had apparently been invaded too much that day, Kate was swiped at by the monkey who then proceeded to jump on to her and climb up her leg. As this happened, those around her were much more concerned in extending their camera lenses than a helping hand, leaving Kate to fend for herself. Luckily though, the monkey’s efforts to retrieve the camera were abandoned rather quickly as it lost interest and moved on to its next endeavor.
Taking the hint, we moved on from the hot springs, following the river that flowed alongside it to a more open area where the simian-sapien ratio wasn’t as human heavy. Among the abundance of monkeys lounging along the banks, we chose to sit by three who were picking bugs out of each other’s fur. Shortly after we sat down, the monkeys heads shot up and they and nearly all of the other ones around them began hurrying over to the hot springs. Curious to find the cause of commotion, we followed the migration to a group of park rangers throwing a dinner of rice grains into the hot springs and surrounding snow banks. The bugs, we supposed, had been their appetizer.
Oddly enough, as we watched the monkeys forage though the snow and water in search of the rice we were reminded of our own hunger and decided to bid farewell to our newfound friends, making our way back through the forest and down the hillside until finally reaching the bus stop to take us back to Tokyo.