Snowboarding in Nagano: Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park and Shibu Onsen

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Bus stop at Yudanaka Station
Bus stop at Yudanaka station

While Nagano is well known as a skiers paradise since it does snow regularly during the winter and with easy access via the Shinkansen to Tokyo and Ueno, it makes it a ski destination for Japanese and tourists alike. It does have a very interesting tourist attraction as well in the form of a monkey park. This famous nature reserve is called the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park and is located in the town of Yudanaka 湯田中. From Nagano, visitors can take the Nagaden or Nagano Electric Railway that links Yudanaka to Nagano. From Shiga Kogen, we took the public bus that takes about one hour or thereabouts with stops made in the town centre around the Shibu Onsen area as well as a final stop at the Yudanaka train station. Thus I believe visitors seeking to head to Shiga Kogen for skiing could take the Nagaden and bus combination as well.

River in Yudanaka Onsen Town
River in the centre of the town of Yudanaka/Shibu onsen
Courtyard of a Japanese House
Courtyard of a Japanese house in Yudanaka

The town of Yudanaka is quite small and it is possible to walk from Yudanaka station to the Monkey Park though it would take about 30 minutes on foot since they are on opposite ends of town. Most ryokans would have a complimentary shuttle bus that would ferry guests to and from the Monkey Park.

Sake in the brewery
Sakes on display at the brewery in Yudanaka
Alley in Yudanaka
Flower buds along the walk towards the Snow Monkey Park

On that day as we just finished lunch nearby our Ryokan, we walked to the Monkey Park as we wanted to visit the Sake brewery along the way as well. Near the Monkey Park itself, there are several shrines. At the entrance to the Monkey Park, visitors can take a rest and order some snacks and refreshments as it is another 15-20 minutes of a hike into the Jigokudani valley. Visitors could also rent winter boots in the refreshment centre since the trail are usually covered in slippery snow and winter boots are essential for a safe visit!

Shrine outside the park
Shrine near the entrance of the Jigokudani valley
Hiking trail
Trail leading to the Snow Monkey Park

What makes the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park 地獄谷野猿公苑 special is that the snow monkeys inhabiting this valley are the northernmost primates on Earth and the bubbling onsens in the area provides a respite for these monkeys in the extreme cold. Jigokudani actually translates to Hell’s Valley in Japanese and this name came about from the steam emanating from the hot springs that the snow monkeys soak in during the winter. Adults pay a fee of ¥500 (~US$5) and entrance fees for children are half of that. Technically visitors need not enter the park to see the snow monkeys as some of them can even be seen in the middle of the valley. However more are found in the park itself where the hot springs for the monkeys are located at.

First sighting of the Snow Monkey
First sighting of the snow monkey
Baby monkey holding onto a rope
Baby monkey crossing with the help of a rope

The hike into the middle of the valley is a pretty enjoyable one as most of the valley is kept in its natural state. Being in the valley also limits the sounds emanating from the town as what hikers would hear are the sound of the water flowing in the river beneath. While most of the hike occurs on flat grounds, there are some stairs to conquer and they can be slippery so once again I need to remind visitors that the right footwear is necessary here.

Hot spring baths for the monkeys
Hot spring baths for the monkeys

Being a natural park, do not expect much other facilities though there is a small village in the middle of the valley. There are also natural outdoor onsens around the park where visitors can pay a fee to enter. Do take note though that visitors can see people soaking in the onsen and as you should know onsen visitors are not supposed to be clothed so visit at your own choice! The Monkey Park itself is a very interestin sight and since it is inhabited by a lot of monkeys, there are a lot of animal droppings about and do not expect a zoo-like environment. Visitors can indeed get really close to the monkeys and a lot of photo opportunities exist to take a pose with the snow monkeys. If one visits Nagano, I cannot see how they would miss this place of interest since it is not everyday you get to see a snow monkey soaking in an onsen!

Monkey on a bath
Snow monkey in the hot spring bath
Snow Monkey in Yudanaka
More snow monkey in the bath

Another claim to fame for the town of Yudanaka is the resort town of Shibu Onsen. As the name of the town suggests, they are one of Japan’s most famous hot springs area. The main attraction are the town’s 9 public hot spring baths. According to a brochure, each of the nine baths have a different mineral composition in the hot springs that could cure certain ailments or improve a particular part of the body. Visitors could identify each of these onsens by the cat figurines outside the entrance of the hot spring baths. It is also quite fun to collect a photos of all the 9 cat figurines.

Shibu Onsen Cat No 6
Cat figurines outside the nine public hot spring baths

For those who are not seeking to take a bath, the small quaint resort town is very nice to take a stroll in during the evening. Visitors could enjoy a bowl of ramen or purchase half-boiled eggs that were cooked using the heat from the hot springs. The latter is especially recommended since they are probably the best half-boiled eggs I have had in my life! The honesty of the Japanese people are really to be commended since the ryokans would just place a sign stating the price of the eggs with the eggs left outside for visitors to purchase on the spot.

Onsen egg
Having onsen-boiled egg in the town Shibu Onsen

Both the hot springs of Shibu Onsen and the snow monkeys within Jigokudani makes it worthwhile to visit this small town and I found that these attractions add to the appeal of Shiga Kogen as a skiing destination. This means that visitors heading to Shiga Kogen for skiing or snowboarding could also enjoy some local sights and immerse in the Japanese way of life by staying in a ryokan and enjoy a rest for all those sore muscles by soaking in one of the numerous hot spring baths!

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