If you’re visiting Japan in winter, well, it’s the perfect time to head to Yamanouchi in Nagano Prefecture to see the famous snow monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park. This was a highlight of our winter trip to Japan, and in this post I’ll run over how to get to Jigokudani Monkey Park from Tokyo, and other things to do in the Yamanouchi area, and in the towns of Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen.
You won’t forget your experience meeting these cute critters, so read on to find out all you need to know about visiting the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park!
How to get to Jigokudani Monkey Park from Tokyo
You can choose to visit the Jigokudani Monkey Park as a day trip from Tokyo, or as part of a longer stay in the area. It was one of our highlights on our trip to Japan! If you’re interested in how to spend up to five days in Tokyo then take a look at our complete guide to Tokyo.
We stayed for two nights in Shibu Onsen. We thought a day trip from Tokyo would be too rushed for our kids, so we took a side trip to Matsumoto Castle on the way to Yudanaka, and spent the next day exploring the snow monkey park, Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen. The following day we carried on to Takayama, another town in the Japanese Alps.
Getting to Jigokudani Monkey Park from Tokyo by train
The nearest station to Jigokudani Monkey Park is Yudanaka station which serves the towns of Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen. There’s no direct route to Yudanaka from Tokyo on the train, so you’ll need to take a train from either Tokyo or Ueno stations to Nagano, the region’s main hub. You can use a Japan Rail Pass between Tokyo and Nagano, if you have one.
There are three high speed trains (shinkansen) that will take you to Nagano where you can change for the Snow Monkey Express trains to Yudanaka station. Check train times, platforms and any extra costs by using the Hyperdia website and its app – it’s amazing and will make getting around Japan super simple. Remember to book seats on your shinkansen before you travel – do this in any ticket office the day before you travel.
When you get to Nagano, you need to go out of the Zenkoji exit and take the escalators immediately to the right – follow signs to Nagano Dentetsu Line (if you get lost ask a station employee and they’ll take you there!). This takes you to another platform where you can buy your Snow Monkey Express train tickets, and your park tickets too. Your JR Pass is not valid on the Snow Monkey Express trains.
Once you arrive at Yudanaka station you can take a local bus or a taxi up to the park. The bus stop is immediately outside of Yudanaka station and there are a couple of buses per hour. If you get the Kanbayashi bus then you need to get off at Kanbayashi Onsen; if you take the Shiga Kogen bus then get off at the Snow Monkey Park bus stop. Take a paper ticket when you board the bus – this tells you which stop you boarded at. Your fare is indicated at the front of the bus, and you pay the fare at the end of the journey by dropping coins into the machine by the driver.
Getting to Jigokudani Monkey Park from Nagano by bus
If you don’t want to faff around with local trains and buses then there’s a bus which takes you from Nagano straight to the snow monkey park entrance in about 45 minutes (depending on road conditions). The buses run frequently in the winter but less often in other seasons.
Leave Nagano station by the east exit and look for bus stop 23 for the Shiga Kogen Express bus. This bus costs ¥1400 per adult and ¥700 per child, and you can pay on the bus. The buses depart about every 45 minutes to an hour and a half. I would check the bus times carefully to time your onward journey with your train arrival. Click here to check bus times (about halfway down the page).
If you’re going to Jigokudani Monkey Park from Tokyo as a day trip, then the bus is probably the quickest option.
Tours to Jigokudani Monkey Park from Tokyo
If you don’t want to go it alone then there are a variety of tours to Jigokudani Monkey Park from Tokyo that you can take. You also get to see more things in the local area on these tours so they might be a good option for you if you don’t want to go it alone. In most cases tours start at Nagano station so you’ll need to be up early to arrive in Nagano from Tokyo.
This Snow Monkey and Cherry Blossom tour runs in April from Nagano station, which is handy if you’re returning to Tokyo the same day, or if you’re staying in the area for longer. Click here to buy your tickets.
This tour runs year round, also from Nagano station. You visit the snow monkeys in the morning and then carry on to Zenkoji Temple and a sake brewery. Click here to buy your tickets.
For families with kids aged 3+ who’d like to see the snow monkeys and then visit the Shiga Highlands for fun in the snow, then this tour is for you.
What to see and do at Jigokudani Monkey Park
Jigokudani Monkey Park dates back to 1964 when a local man called Sogo Hara first noticed that the monkey populations who lived in the forest were in decline due to deforestation and development of ski resorts. Forced into the towns and farms nearby the monkeys were also being killed by the local people who saw them as thieves and pests, much to Sogo Hara’s dismay.
However, the monkeys were then seen copying humans bathing in the outdoor onsen of a ryokan in Jigokudani valley. Led by Sogo Hara, the Jigokudani Monkey Park was set up so that the monkeys had their own onsen and were protected at the same time.
The walk through the forest
Don’t expect to see any snow monkeys when you arrive at the park entrance! You have to walk for about 30 minutes to the onsen where the monkeys bathe, so make sure you’ve got good walking shoes on.
The path isn’t suitable for pushchairs so I would bring a baby carrier if you’re travelling with small kids, but do be very careful along the path if you’re carrying your kids, especially if it’s been snowing recently. The path is generally flat so it’s not a strenuous walk, but it can and does get very slippery.
If it’s very icy you might want to hire some shoe grips from the shop by the entrance. If you’ve not wrapped up well enough you can also hire coats, gloves and hats too! Luckily for us, there was no ice on the path when we visited.
It’s quite a pretty, quiet walk through the forest, and the kids enjoyed it. The path is lined with towering fir trees, making for a peaceful green walk at any time of year. There are a few information boards dotted along the way which will tell you more about how the monkeys live – good for getting the kids up to speed before you see the snow monkeys.
You’ll know when you’re nearly at the end of the path as you’ll see a large ryokan in a valley, and you’ll see the steam from the hot springs and get the odd whiff of sulphur – this gives the valley its name, Jigokudani, which translates as Hell Valley. You might also see a monkey or two lazing about at the ryokan.
At the end of the forest path there’s an information centre where you buy your tickets (and a bathroom, lockers and vending machines). Tickets cost ¥800 for adults and ¥400 for kids aged 6+. Once you’re through the information centre the snow monkey onsen is just a few metres away, and you’ll get your first look at the monkeys.
Meet the snow monkeys
We visited Jigokudani Monkey Park at the end of December. The area had just had its first snowfall of the year, so while it was fairly chilly, it wasn’t anywhere near as cold as it gets later in the winter. The colder it is, the more monkeys you’re likely to see in the onsen baths. Still, when we arrived there were several monkeys relaxing in the baths, and plenty more in the surrounding area.
You should also be prepared to see plenty of another type of simian – Jigokudani Monkey Park is pretty popular with humans, too. Unless you arrive for opening time at 9am there are going to be a lot of tourists snapping away at the monkeys.
The snow monkeys are Japanese macaques, who are all still wild. There are a few common sense rules which you should be aware of, and make sure that your kids understand:
- Don’t touch the monkeys or give them any food
- You shouldn’t look the monkeys in the eyes – it’s seen as a challenge
- Don’t eat anything or carry any food in your bags (you can leave food in the visitor centre)
As the snow monkeys are still (sort of) wild they demonstrate their normal behaviour, but they are utterly unconcerned with the crowds of people watching them. They’ll run along the paths right next to you, or sit on walls or fences next to crowds of people and simply ignore you. This means that you can get really close to the monkeys without bothering them, which is a fantastic way to observe their behaviour.
Watching the monkeys was fascinating for our kids. They’d never seen wild animals like this so close before and we spent a while watching the monkeys groom each other and relax in the baths. Although the kids liked watching the monkeys, they were a little nervous of the macaques and didn’t like it if one ran too close to them!
When we visited there were only a few monkeys in the baths but there were plenty more along the river – we were able to watch mothers with their adorable babies, which my girl thought were beyond cute. The monkeys’ coats blend perfectly with the rocks around them and so you have to look really carefully to see how many monkeys are actually there if there isn’t much snow. We saw a park warden feeding the monkeys too, and as there must have been about fifty or so who crowded together to eat.
Not much about Jigokudani Monkey Park is natural, so don’t go expecting it to be. The hot springs are natural but the baths are man made, and while the monkeys are drawn to the area by the baths, they’re also lured in by regular feedings.
You can see the monkeys there most days but you’ll have much more luck in the winter, so if you’re thinking about going in other seasons you might want to allow a couple of days in the area to make sure that you see them.
What to see and do in Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen
Getting to and around Jigokudani Monkey Park from Tokyo will take about half a day, depending on how long you want to spend with the monkeys, so you might find you’ve got some time to see something else before you have to travel back if you’re not staying in the area.
After an hour or so of watching the monkeys the kids had had enough and so we caught the local bus back to Yudanaka station, where we spent the rest of the day wandering through Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen.
The two towns of Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen blend together into one bigger town. Honestly I couldn’t tell where one town ended and the other began. They’re pretty towns and we spent a pleasant afternoon exploring, although the towns were very quiet, Yudanaka especially.
We did see more people walking through the streets when we got to Shibu Onsen. The streets are narrow and cobbled, and many of the buildings lining the streets are traditional wooden buildings, so it makes for an atmospheric walk!
On our walk we stopped to look at some temples where the kids got to learn about Buddhism (bathing the statues with hot water for luck). We also had a good time looking in the shops in Shibu Onsen where we bought some little presents for the kids for their Christmas stockings and some Japanese rice sweets for later.
Hot Springs and public bath houses in Shibu Onsen
The hot spring up in Jigokudani Monkey Park isn’t the only one in the area. The mountains are dotted with them and there are several in the towns too. This means that Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen have become spa towns and are magnets for local people and tourists alike who want to relax in the onsen.
Sotoyu baths in Shibu Onsen
In Shibu Onsen there are a total of nine public bathhouses (called sotoyu) and as we walked around we saw several groups of people dressed in yukata (robes) and geta (wooden shoes) visiting them. Most people try to visit all of the onsen during their stay; each spring has different minerals and temperatures and is said to be beneficial in different ways, so no visit is the same!
If you’re planning on visiting all of the bathhouses then make sure you buy a special bath towel (a kigan tenugui) and stamp it at each bathhouse. Once you’ve been to all of the baths you can visit Shibu Takayakushi temple, tie the towel with a ribbon and make a wish. The towels are sold in many shops around town and they make a great souvenir!
If you’d like to visit all of the public onsen then you’ll need to make sure that you’re staying in a ryokan (Japanese Inn) affiliated with the baths so that you can get a key. There is one bath, number nine or O-yu, which anyone can use but there is an entrance fee of ¥500 per person for this one if you don’t have a key.
I wouldn’t really recommend visiting public onsen with young children as there’s a lot of onsen etiquette that needs to be followed, and with small kids this could be a bit too stressful. Don’t forget that you have to go in the baths naked and so teens might not be that keen on this experience either!
Alternatives to the sotoyu baths
The ryokan that we stayed in wasn’t one affiliated with the bathhouses, but we weren’t planning on using the public baths with the kids. Instead our ryokan had access to a private bath (perfect for shy Brits) which we tried out with limited success. The onsen itself was lovely; it was an outdoor pool in the garden of a house owned by the ryokan. The onsen was high up on the hill and we spent a while staring at the twinkling lights of the town below. The owners had put apples into the water for fragrance too!
At first the kids were really keen to get in the onsen but the evening was cold and the bath water too hot so we couldn’t get the kids in the water! So they had to sit by the side of the bath while us adults took turns in the onsen. But bathing in an onsen is a really relaxing way to spend your evening if you don’t have small kids with you!
Where to eat in Yudanaka
There are several recommended restaurants down near Yudanaka station. I used google and the Happy Cow app to find one that served vegetarian food.
We chose to visit Hakko for lunch after our visit to the snow monkey park and it was a fantastic place to eat. We loved the rooms and the style of the building, and the staff were very accommodating with our irritating food requests (three vegetarians including two extremely fussy kids). As it was a cold day and the Japanese don’t have central heating in many of their older buildings we were given some blankets to keep warm!
Hakko serves traditional Japanese food and they’ve got a good selection of alcohol too – we tried some sake with our meal to warm us up but they also had plenty of beer and wine. I was really pleased to be able to get some real Japanese food that was also vegetarian – on my first visit to Japan I found it really difficult to find anything much and things have definitely changed for the better since then. I had a curry with tofu, rice and garnishes and the husband had some enormous local sausages.
For the rest of our stay we ate our meals at our ryokan in Shibu Onsen which has a restaurant open to all (you should book in advance) and we’d recommend eating here too.
Where to stay in Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen
Where we stayed: Koishiya Ryokan
We absolutely loved our stay at Koishiya Ryokan and we’d recommend it for other families, especially if you’re looking for a budget stay. Koishiya Ryokan is a traditional style Japanese inn in Shibu Onsen, and it’s perfectly located for visiting the snow monkeys as they have a driver who will take you up to the car park by the main entrance of the snow monkey park. We spent two nights here in December.
We had a good sized room for the four of us and plenty of bedding. As with many ryokan the bathroom facilities are shared – there are separate male and female toilets and two showers. We wouldn’t usually book places with shared facilities but we got used to using them quickly, and they’re pretty normal in Japan especially if you’re travelling on a budget.
We ate at the restaurant too – Koishiya Ryokan does lovely breakfasts and dinners with both western and Japanese menus, and sandwiches at lunchtime.
What made our stay fantastic were the people who worked at the ryokan, especially Tetsuya. He was great with the kids and happy to help us with arranging visits to the ryokan’s onsen, and booking lifts for us to the monkey park and to the train station for our departure.
The only downside to Koishiya Ryokan is to do with the public onsen as they don’t have a key to them. But there’s a large bathhouse open to everyone in Shibu Onsen too, and of course, the ryokan has their own private bath anyway.
Other places to stay in Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen
Yudanaka Onsen Yamazakiya is a really popular choice for families – if you can get a room that is! They book up really fast. It’s a traditional ryokan in Yudanaka Onsen and so you can expect a Japanese style room and shared bathrooms. There’s also a karaoke room and a restaurant on site, and rates are reasonable. Click here to check that elusive availability!
A little pricier than the above ryokan but not eyewateringly expensive is Sakaeya. This is an upmarket ryokan which has access to an indoor and outdoor onsen, and will give you an onsen key for the rest of the public baths in Shibu Onsen. Rooms have their own toilet but bathing facilities are shared. An on site restaurant provides typical Japanese fare. Click here to book your stay.
If you’d like a bit of luxury and you’re planning on experiencing onsen, then the 5-star ryokan Kokuya is the place to come. There are 9 different baths at this hotel including public and private baths. All rooms have en suite toilets and some have ensuite outdoor baths too. The food served in the on site restaurant also comes highly recommended. Click here to book your stay.