Japanese Monkeys Chill Out in Hot Springs

Eric Talmadge
New York Post
August 19, 2002
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 here—snow 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.

"They started getting into the water about 40 years ago," said Harue Takefushi, the 90-year-old matron of Korakukan, a small wooden inn that has been here since 1864. "First came the little ones, then the adults. Then they started coming regularly to get out of the chill."

Today, the monkeys bathe in two main pools dug expressly for their use, or in the hot-spring-fed stream that runs nearby. Though most soak quietly, some submerge themselves to walk on the bottom of pools in search of nuts or other food.

In the colder months, it is not uncommon for the monkeys to use the outdoor bath at Korakukan as well.

"One guest ran away when some monkeys got in, but most of the people who come here enjoy it when the monkeys join them," Takefushi said.

Overly aggressive macaques have become a major nuisance in several national parks and even in some city suburbs. In one town just south of Tokyo, roving bands of macaques regularly descend from the hills to steal food from grocery stores. Shopkeepers have fought back by brandishing pop guns.

Tokida said the monkeys in Jigokudani are better behaved because they have ample food and enough room to roam freely.

Visitors are strongly discouraged from feeding the monkeys, and are asked to check their bags, so that the macaques won't be tempted to snatch them.

Pamphlets given out at the gate to the park warn: "The monkeys here are not lovable animals. If they feel a threat to their lives, they will try to bite. Observe quietly, and as far back as possible."

New York Post is a registered trademark of NYP Holdings, Inc. Copyright 2002 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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