Best Places To Play With Monkeys In Japan
by Jordan Mounteer
Some people often forget that Japan is, for all intents and purposes, a semi-tropical climate, and if you’ve ever braved an August afternoon there you’ll know what I’m talking about. But one of the unique things that comes along with temperate weather is the flora and fauna. And, more specifically, the animal life. Japan has a slew of wildlife that is endemic to its different islands, but perhaps none is more curious – or naughty – than the monkeys. We take a look at some of the best places to both spot and a hang out with primates.
Photo by http://jigokudani-yaenkoen.co.jp/
Iwatayama Monkey Park, Arashimaya, Kyoto
Nearby in the hills of Kyoto, one of the more popular tourist attractions is Arashiyama-san. The mountain that overlooks the old capital is famous as an outdoor area, in particular because of the bamboo grove that exists there. Although a bit far from downtown, it features extremely tall Japanese bamboo which rise straight up and form their own vertical canopy. And while there is plenty to see, including lots of interconnected paths and gardens interspersed with temples, what really makes it stand out is the Iwatayama Monkey Reserve. Located across the Oi River, this refuge is an ideal place to catch a glimpse of the Japanese macaque. These cute red-faced creatures live wild in Japan, but here they are cared for and tended to – at the top of the hill in their enclosure it’s often quite common to see new mothers clambering about with their babies gripping on their backs or huddled against their chests.
Because they are wild animals, a fact which is enforced in Iwatayama’s rules and outlines, it’s also important never to try to touch or pet them, to avoid staring directly into their eyes (which can be perceived as a threat), and not to feed them outside of the hut. But if you are keen on getting up close and personal, it’s no problem to fork out 100 yen for apples or peanuts and feed them yourself under the supervision of one of the employees.
Jigokudani Monkey Park, Yamanouchi Prefecture, Nagano
Perhaps the place that made monkeys famous in Japan originally, the prefecture of Nagano contains a lot of volcanic activity which has given birth to a number of very famous onsens, or natural hot springs. Jigokudani is one of these, featuring open air baths, but in recent years (especially in winter), the area is overrun with snow monkeys who like to bask in the hot waters. The climate of Jigokudani, which translates roughly to ‘hell valley’, and gets its name from the heavy steam, is generally covered in snow almost a third of the year, making it a prime location for those wanting to relax. Since 1964 when the park was instituted, the monkeys have just been another part of the experience.
On their website you can find lots of interesting information about the monkeys, but most interestingly there is also a live feed of the hot spring, which lets anyone get an intimate look at these funny creatures – it’s impossible not to feel a degree of kinship when you see them rolling snowballs or preening each other. Like Iwatayama, it’s forbidden to touch or to try and feed the monkeys, but here you can get extremely close to them, as they have long grown accustomed to human presence.
Yakushima Island, Kagoshima Prefecture
While it can sometimes feel hard to find ‘real’ wilderness in Japan, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – it just takes a little more effort to find, and Yakushima is perhaps the best example. Located in the south as part of the Osumi island chain, it is almost entirely forested, and gets an incredible amount of rain. Access to the island and the small town is restricted to either airplane or hydrofoil, and because of its relative isolation nearly 50% of their power is hydroelectric. For most people, short of those who are outdoor enthusiasts and want to explore the mountains, there isn’t a whole lot to do.
And yet, Yakushima is host to over 7000 red bottomed macaques that call the island home, along with a healthy population of tanuki and deer. Unlike the other macaques in Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku, this variety of macaque is actually bit shorter and stockier and can be easily distinguished from their northern cousins by a genetic feature termed “momoware” (split peach), which refers to the fact that their hair naturally parts from left to right. As expected, they’re also a bit more timid, and although it’s quite common to see them if you’re hiking in the woods, they try to keep their distance from humans.
At one time, the food supply of the macaques became depleted and they encroached on human habitation, leading to extensive culling which eventually put them at risk as an endangered species, but in the past two decades they have successfully repopulated and are now as healthy as ever.
Mount Takasaki Wild Monkey Park, Kyushu
Halfway between the hot spring town of Beppu and its next door neighbor Oita is the infamous Mount Takasaki. Although presenting a formidable challenge for hikers, it has drawn far more tourists due to its high population of monkeys. The entire area is a protected reserve, but like Yakushima it’s definitely wild in the sense that you won’t find as many tourists here, even though the park itself has a monorail and the expected facilities. It includes a ‘playground’ of sorts where the monkeys frolic, seemingly without any cares in the world, and for the most part ignore their human spectators. Nevertheless, the same principles apply here as anywhere else – don’t look the monkeys in the eyes or intimidate them, and don’t attempt to pet them. More than a few people have ended up with a playful (warning) bite or swipe.
Speaking of which, you won’t find a naughtier group of monkeys. It’s recommended you keep your cameras, backpacks, and purses firmly in hand, because they are incredibly opportunistic and won’t hesitate to steal cameras or food right out of your hands! The highlight of Takasaki is probably the feeding times though, when literally hundreds of monkeys come down off the mountain. After watching a veritable army of hairy primates marching toward one of the employees, you won’t be able to watch ‘Planet of the Apes’ the same way again.
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