Jigokudani Yaen-Koen - Snow Monkey Park in Nagano, Japan

Ever since I've seen pictures of monkeys bathing in hot spring online, I've been wanting to go to the Snow Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaen-Koen) in Nagano to see it for myself so I came here in 2013 for my birthday! The monkey park is actually located in Yamanouchi in Nagano prefecture so I had to take another train from Nagano city to Yamanouchi. I stayed at a hotel in Shibu Onsen, a nearby popular and quaint hot spring town, which provided transportation to and from the park since many people stay at the onsen hotel to see the monkeys as well. The hotel dropped us off at the nearest parking lot to the park but we were still required to walk for another 1.6km to get to the actual monkey park itself. The path itself wasn't difficult but can be a bit slippery with the melted snow slush and all so I was surprised when I see elderly people making their way through this path in this condition. Unfortunately this is the only way to get into the park so proper shoes will help especially if you are visiting during winter months with snow. 

Once you make your way in, you will be rewarded with this view of Jigokudani which means "hell's valley". There's actually a ryokan located inside the valley where I hear that occasionally some of the snow monkeys will pay a visit to the outdoor onsen. 

After paying the entrance fee of ¥500, you will get to witness lots of snow monkeys interacting and playing with each other which can be quite fun to watch. The monkeys are fairly friendly and mostly ignored humans gawking at them. Just use common sense and don't do anything to provoke them. I've been to many monkey parks in Asia now and these snow monkeys in Japan are the most well-behaved ones since you don't have to worry about them stealing your stuff. 

The most popular site in the park is of course the onsen pool where the snow monkeys bathe in. The man-made pool is much smaller than I thought and crowded with photographers! I could barely make my way to the edge of the pool to take pictures and people tend to stay there for a long time to get the best shot. I even had someone try to take pictures above my head because I was crouching down and when I stood up, my head hit the lens! It is an unique experience to see the monkeys enjoying the onsen so try to get there early to avoid the crowds. 

As mentioned, many people who visit Jigokudani stay at Shibu Onsen which is a historic and lovely hot spring town. Even if you do not choose to stay overnight at a ryokan with onsen (which is highly recommended!), there are public bath houses that are open to day trippers as well. This is the view of the town from our ryokan in Shibu Onsen.

The streets are fairly quiet at night. There's not much to see though as most of the shops are closed already.

The perks of staying at a ryokan is of course the kaiseki food! 

Back in Nagano City, I went to visit one of the most important and popular temples in Japan - Zenkoji (善光寺). It is a Buddhist temple founded in the 7th century and houses the first Buddha statue ever to be brought to Japan which is hidden from public while a copy of it is shown to the public every 6 years. Like many temples in Japan, there's a nice street leading up to the Zenkoji temple with many souvenirs and tea shops to visit. 

Admission costs ¥500 and it is a fairly nice stroll to the main hall with gardens and statues of 6 Bodhisattvas who gave up Buddhist enlightenment in order to provide salvation to others.

One thing that you must eat in Nagano is soba! Nagano is famous for its soba buckwheat noodles as its highland are perfect for growing buckwheat which is then ground and mixed with fresh water from mountains in the region. You can eat soba hot or cold but I prefer mine cold so I can dip in sauce to eat. 

Another thing that Nagano is famous for is horse meat sashimi! The basashi tastes like beef actually but a bit tougher and chewier. It's not too bad if you've had beef sashimi before but I've had basashi a few times now and can say that it's not really my thing. We tried this at a small izakaya full of locals and salaryman which is quite an experience in itself. 

This is a dish most famous at this izakaya - a croquette as big as a football!

Access: Fly into Tokyo and take the Nagano Shinkansen train or highway buses to Nagano.

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