The forests of the Jigokudani valley in Japan are surrounded by imposing cliffs and fountains of steaming hot water. It’s a breathtaking contrast to see the steam of the springs against the starkness of the snowy landscape. Locals refer to Jigokudani as “Hell Valley,” both for its appearance of “smoke” and its harsh climate.
One group, however, doesn’t mind the cold winters at all. The Japanese Macaques, also known as “Snow Monkeys,” inhabit Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park and frequent the hot springs like visitors to a high-end spa. To the delight of thousands of visitors each year, the monkeys take very little notice of the humans that flock to the springs to photograph them. Instead, they go about their business, relaxing in the water, and interacting with each other.
The primary gathering place for the monkeys is a human-made pool near the entrance of the park. While it is against the law for visitors to touch or feed the monkeys, they are free to walk amongst the playful primates.
The park is open all year, but the best opportunity to photograph the monkeys is from December to March when there is snow on the ground. During the warmer months, the monkeys are less likely inclined to enter the water. There are two easy hiking trails to the Jigokudani Monkey Park. One takes visitors through the forest, and the other is just a ten-minute walk from the parking lot.
After getting their fill of observing Hell Valley’s most famous furry residents, visitors are encouraged to stay for a while to immerse themselves in the beauty of Japan’s native flowers, wildlife, and some of the most breathtaking mountain views in the world.