It’s not easy to get to Jigokudani Monkey Park, which is probably why it still exists in its current form. The nearest town, Yamanouchi, is nestled deep in the Japanese Alps – the mountain range that forms the jagged spine of the island of Honshū. The town is a four hour train ride from Tokyo, and the park a further half-hour hike from the outskirts of town, along a narrow mountain path often covered in snow.
The distance affords Jigokudani some relief from the throngs of tourists who crowd into the attractions nearer to Tokyo. Nevertheless, the park hosts a steady stream of visitors even in the most inclement of weather, all of whom have come to see the Japanese macaque – the famed ‘snow monkey’, and the only non-human primate to live in cold temperatures – in its natural habitat.
The macaque is an exceptionally intelligent animal, and researchers have long been intrigued by its facility in both learning new information and in passing those lessons down throughout generations. In 1954, a female macaque named Imo was observed washing sand off of her sweet potatoes by dunking them in the sea; later, she and her troop took to dunking all their food in the ocean, sand or no sand, because they liked the salty taste.
They’ve also been observed playing with snowballs and sticks, and there have been reports of macaques near Osaka stealing wallets and purses and using the coins inside to buy food from vending machines. Different troops have been proven to have different dialects and to have specific types of calls for different stimuli.
Then again, a macaque named Zoro once ruled his troop for almost twelve years because he stole a banana from the previous alpha male, so perhaps the reports of their intelligence are a trifle overstated.
Sometime in the 1960s the macaques observed human beings using the onsen, or hot spring baths, near Jigokudani and decided to give it a shot. Eventually people got tired of sharing their baths with a bunch of monkeys and built them their own hot springs, luring them there by tossing sweet potatoes into the water. In the fifty years since the macaques have continued to bathe almost daily in the wintertime, lured by the hot springs (which they genuinely seem to enjoy) and by the regular meals the park staff spread throughout the snow.
Between the two monkey species that visit Jigokudani, the macaques certainly came off better for the comparison. They’re not so much human-friendly as they are human-apathetic; as far as I could tell, they paid their visitors no mind at all. Some of the human beings were not as polite.
It would be hypocritical for me to fault the overly-excited photographers – while I put a long lens on my camera and tried to keep my distance, I drew much closer to the macaques than I normally would to a wild animal. More discouraging were the people who ignored the many signs exhorting visitors to avoid interacting with the macaques – the people who, flashing peace signs, crowded around a sleeping mother and baby for a photo, or who tried to high-five one of the monkeys (!).
To be fair, it was difficult to avoid interacting with the monkeys. At one point, I was crouched down photographing one macaque when I felt something brush my side; another macaque was using me as a sort of lean-to for protection from the falling snow.
Jigokudani is a sort of like a cheat code for wildlife photography – not only are the monkeys extremely cute, with their old-man-faces and their wide, expressive eyes, but you can also get as close to them as you like. I kept imagining a National Geographic photographer, fresh from a blind in the Serengeti or something, wandering around the park muttering “bullshit” under his breath.
I enjoyed the monkey park, but there was also something silly about the whole thing, about all the people wandering among the monkeys furiously snapping photographs. Ron Fricke already filmed the snow monkeys about as well as they could be filmed when he shot them in glorious 70mm film for his 1992 documentary Baraka. What were we really hoping to accomplish by lugging our DSLRs and our tripods up the mountain? What photo could we take that someone else hadn’t already taken? We were taking photographs to preserve the moment, but our very presence, and the lengths we had gone through to be there, was proof that someone else’s photographs weren’t wholly satisfying.
That being said, to see more of my photos from Jigokudani, click here to check out the whole set on Flickr.