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One of the most incredible experiences we had during our trip to Japan was witnessing the beautiful Nagano snow monkeys, relaxing and bathing in hot steaming onsens up in the mountains.
How to visit the Snow Monkeys in Nagano
If you have a Japan rail pass and you are passing through Nagano from Tokyo, why not stop off for the day and visit them at Jigokudani Monkey Park (or it is the perfect day trip from Tokyo by bullet train). It is a truly unique thing to do in Japan and a great chance to photograph the wild macaques up close and personal.
Visiting the Nagano snow monkeys can also be done as a day trip if you are staying in Tokyo – the bullet train journey to Nagano takes 80 minutes from the main train station. If you are passing through Nagano with luggage, you can store your belongings in the station lockers. There are extra large sized ones if you have huge suitcases.
The best time of year to visit the park is during winter, as the snow makes the surroundings very magical, and you are more likely to see the monkeys bathing in the onsen. The park is open all year round. Opening hours are 8:30am to 5pm (April to October) and 9am to 4pm (November to March).
You will probably need to allow yourself around 5-6 hours for the entire experience. This includes the return journey to the park, and time spent with the Nagano snow monkeys.
1 day Snow Monkey Pass for Jigokudani Monkey Park
The cheapest way to visit is to purchase a 1 day Snow Monkey pass for 3,500 yen (which cannot be purchased online). You need to exit the front of Nagano station, turn right and head down the escalators to the Nagano Dentetsu line station. You should see a little sign for snow monkeys and there is a manned booth to the right where you can purchase the pass from.
The passes cover unlimited transportation to the park using either the train (Nagano Dentetsu line), the Nagaden express bus or any local buses. The ticket also includes your 800 yen entry fee to the park.
Note: The Japan rail pass does not cover the particular trains that go to the park.
Walk through Nagano Train station and exit out of the back entrance to find the bus stops. Make sure you make note of the timetable when purchasing the pass (located by the snow monkey ticket booth) as that will tell you what bus stop number to get onto. For the easiest and quickest option I would recommend taking the express bus.
The express bus journey takes around 40 minutes and the bus drops you off at Kanbayashi Onsen, there is a guide at the front of the bus who checks your tickets and tells you when to get off. Make sure you arrive at the bus stop with plenty of time to spare as the bus gets quite full and you don’t want to wait around for the next one.
Walking up to Jigokudani Monkey Park
Once you get off the bus, you need to walk for a further 25 minutes before you reach the monkeys. Follow the slight uphill trail path through the cedar forest.
Tip – take some good walking shoes that you don’t mind getting dirty, as the path can get very muddy and slippery. Be careful when carrying food as the hungry monkeys will pounce on you if they get an inkling you have something to eat (avoid the sound of rustling plastic bags!).
Arriving at Jigokudani Monkey Park
Once you arrive at the top, you will find a large man-made spring next to a river, with wild monkeys gathering around it and bathing in the hot waters. All around the area, monkeys are playing by chasing each other, plus also grooming each other and hugging to keep in the warmth. They are very relaxed in front of humans and will casually run around your feet.
There is a small gift shop and toilets at the top, and a cafe and another shop on way down (this one sells awesome mini flavoured kitkats!)
To head back to Nagano Station from Jigokudani Monkey Park, walk back down the same path you came up, and the bus stop is across the road from where you were dropped off (it has a small wooden shelter).
Tip – whilst you are waiting for your train out of Nagano, there is an awesome stand up ramen joint on the bullet train platform. It is run by a sweet old lady and her noodles are super cheap and tasty. There are many other food options in Nagano Station including tasty bento boxes and cans of Asahi for your bullet ride back.
Information is correct as of March 2016.
If you want to visit other places in the area, have a look at Kusatsu Onsen – one of Japan’s most famous hot spring resorts.
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