New York Post
The scene is rugged. Cliffs jut up from around a snow-fed stream, then taper off into rolling evergreen forests and, farther off, into the frosted peaks of the central Japan Alps.
Picture at the center of it all a beautiful pool of clear, hot mineral water lined in dark gray rocks and surrounded by volcanic vents that spew up jets of pungent, sulfer-laden steam.
Possibly nowhere in the world is a good soak in a hot spring more appreciated than it is in Japan. But at a resort in Yamanouchi, in the heart of central Japan's hot springs country, the bathers are monkeys.
Here, macaques with thick, sand-colored fur and bright red faces sit in the water like caricatures of their human cousins, relaxing, nodding off.
The bathing monkeys of Jigokudani, or Hell's Valley, are among the best-loved symbols of Japan's often forgotten wild side.
The 250 macaques at this steaming ravine have their own live cam site on the Internet. They have been featured on stamps. They were a popular draw during the 1998 Nagano Olympics, when the snowboard half-pipe event was held just a 20-minute walk away.
Despite its relatively remote location, roughly 90,000 visitors trek through the woods of Nagano each year to see Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park, according to park director Eishi Tokida.
What they find here is unique.
Jigokudani is as far north as it gets for monkeys. No primate, with the exception of humans, is known to live in a colder climate. And it does get cold heresnow covers the ground for four months of the year, and winter temperatures average 14ºF (-10º).
Though their thick fur can make them appear much larger, adult macaques weigh about 33 pounds (15 kilograms) and stand about 2 feet (0.6 meters) tall. And though they are a relatively familiar animal throughout the mountainous areas of Japan, they are considered an endangered species.
What really makes them unusual, however, is their love of hot water.