Seeing a monkey’s red face and tousled fur poking up from a steaming hot bath is one of nature’s more surreal sights. But that’s exactly what visitors to a snowy corner of Japan can experience in winter.
Nagano prefecture is known for its mountains and onsens. It’s also home to the Japanese macaque, which lives further north than any other non-human primate.
For much of the year, they roam forests, eating fruit, seeds and insects. But when the cold really bites, one group of macaques does what any sensible person would do – they hop in a bath to warm up, using a local onsen to keep winter at bay.
Only one monkey troop in the world warms up this way. The Snow Monkey Park, sitting within the larger Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, was created as a conservation area for the monkeys, which were viewed as pests by many local people. Food left for the monkeys encourages them to return to the park regularly.
Getting into the hot springs is a relatively new behaviour for the macaques. The first bathers may have been copying humans, or looking for fallen fruit in the onsen, but whatever set them off, they now regularly hop into their purpose-built, volcanically heated pool, to the delight of camera-toting visitors.
The Snow Monkey Park is a 1.6km (1mi) uphill walk from the car park, which is a one-hour drive from Nagano. To get the most of your visit, go early and when there’s snow on the ground. The site looks magical when the monkeys are clustered together, relaxing and grooming each other, as steam rises over the white landscape, but is less inspiring when it’s packed with tourists or when the snow is replaced by mud. The webcam lets you check out conditions to ensure your best chance of monkey magic.