Folk tales and myths abound regarding animals soothing wounds by soaking in onsen. In Jigokudani onsen however, there is a troop of over 200 Japanese macaques who mainly bathe in onsen to get through the winter cold. So begins the story of another winter onsen adventure!
Jigokudani Onsen is located deep in the Joshin etsu National Park in the northern region of Nagano prefecture. The area is famous for the snow monkeys and Shiga Kogen, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve with spectacular mountain scenery. The Yokoyu river runs through the area and has many hot springs flowing from its rocky bed.
How it all began
The onsen for monkeys was developed by locals after witnessing a young curious monkey dipping his toe into one of the natural hot springs. From there he immersed his body fully and it didn’t take long before other monkeys got into act the soon after. In 1964, the local community opened the Snow Monkey Park and since then it has now become a huge attraction. Fortunately the balance with nature has been well preserved with visitors still being able to get very close to the monkeys in their natural habitat.
Parallels with regular onsen resorts
One can’t help but draw the parallels between humans vs monkeys enjoying the hot springs. Surrounded by a lush forest in a stunning natural setting, the monkeys combine play, savour the local natural delicacies and enjoy regular communal soaks in the onsen to escape the cold. The monkeys even drink the onsen water providing a much warmer option to the icy cold water from the river winding down the valley. I couldn’t help but think these monkeys seemed to have it all! Unlike regular onsens however, cameras were allowed and amateurs and professionals alike gathered around the onsen trying to get the perfect shot.
There is also a traditional Japanese ryokan to stay and have an onsen just near the snow monkey park however it was closed at the time of our visit.
Located less than 5 minutes drive away from the snow monkey park was a wonderful little Japanese minshuku (inn) which has an onsen called Waku-waku no yu. “Waku-waku” is one of the many Japanese onomatopoeia which can be used to describe emotions and means feeling excited and happy. This phrase perfectly encapsulated our response to the open air bath experience in the snow on the evening of our stay. It was not just the excitement of bathing outdoors in the snow, but also the amazing contrasting sensory experience of the hot water warming our bodies as the icy snow flakes lightly caressed our faces. The steam rising from the bath also provided a mesmerising view as it mingled with the snow flakes melting them just before they hit the surface. Quite a beautiful memory to treasure…
The onsen water at Waku-waku no yu was rich in sulfur, sodium, calcium, chloride and hydrogen sulfide which are known for healing nerve and muscle pain, stiff shoulders, digestive complaints, and relieving symptoms of stress. Overall, the plethora of natural healing qualities of the onsen, combined with the exhilaration of the snow experience, provided an unbeatable recipe for restoring our energy and a sense of wellness and peace.
The following morning we were up at 6am in our yukatas to see if we could sneak our camera’s into the bath house to snap a few pictures. Mission accomplished! We couldn’t have wished for a more perfect winter onsen bath experience.
Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano (80 minutes) followed by the limited express Nagano Dentetsu line to Yudanaka (45minutes). From there it is approximately 15 minutes by local bus, and another 30 minute walk though the forest to get to Jigokudani Onsen. Including transfers it may take around 4 hours to get there however it is well worth the visit. A vist to Obuse, on the Nagano Dentetsu line, is also highly recommended!