Japanese snow monkeys have been patronizing the hot spring baths of the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park for decades (since 1964, officially), and the image of these primates submerged in steaming water has become one of Japan’s most iconic. Even in the era of “overtourism”, a visit to the park—tucked away high in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture—is a worthy, relatively uncrowded endeavor, and one that should be on your to-do list whether you’re a short-term visitor or lifelong resident. Here’s an overview of how to make your way from Tokyo to Jigokudani, and what to expect when you get there.
Visiting the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park: Where and when?
The Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is in Yamanouchi in the Shimotakai district of Nagano, falling within the vast Shiga Kogen National Park (a prime place for hiking, as well as skiing and snowboarding near Tokyo). The word “Jigokudani” means “Hell Valley”—and is given to this, and several other volcanic areas of Japan, because of the steam and boiling water that escapes from the harsh terrain.
The Yamanouchi region receives heavy snowfall in winter (it’s generally white from December through March), with January and February said to be the best time of year to visit the monkey park. It’s definitely the most scenic, with snow-capped trees backgrounding groups of bathing Japanese macaques. However, you can actually visit in any month—park employees feed the monkeys year-round, meaning that they can be found near the man-made rock bath (the center of attention) fairly reliably even in summer.
That said, the monkeys you’ll see are wild animals—and they keep their own schedules. There are no fences or cages, and they do whatever they like, really. That’s part of the beauty of the whole park, and something that sets it apart from many of Japan’s other animal experiences.
Getting from Tokyo to Jigokudani
The trip from Tokyo to Jigokudani can be done as a day trip if you leave early enough, or an easy overnight affair. The monkey park is open daily from 8:30-17:00 in the warmer months and 9:00-16:00 between November and March, and you can check out the live camera to try and gauge what time of day the furry featured guests are most likely to scrub up. Allow yourself an hour or two to explore the park—that’s about enough time to see all there is to see.
There are two main methods of getting from Tokyo to Jigokudani: take a train to Nagano and then a bus to the snow monkey park, or drive yourself directly. Many families opt for the latter, navigating a narrow road up to the parking lot of the monkey park and then walking a short 10-15 minute path to the bathing area. Unfortunately, no buses run this route, though you can take a taxi from one of the nearby stations—bear in mind that this could be quite costly though, and that the road may be closed in winter. We’ll focus on the train + bus option here.
1. Getting to Nagano
The priciest part of the trip from Tokyo to Jigokudani is the train to Nagano. Taking anything other than a bullet train isn’t recommended because of how time-consuming it can be, so budget for a return trip on the Shinkansen. Normal one-way fares are about ¥8,200, but you can make the outing a lot more affordable by taking advantage of a JR Pass or JR East Nagano-Niigata Area Pass if you’re a short-term foreign visitor. If you’re a long-term resident, taking a bus tour might work out to be more budget-friendly option.
2. Getting to the snow monkey park
Once you’ve arrived, you can take an express bus from the east side of Nagano Station directly to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. It takes under an hour—the snag is that there are only a handful of buses every day, and they cost close to ¥1,500. You can try to decipher the timetable here (good luck).
A much better bet is to hop onto the Nagano Dentetsu (Nagaden) train line from Nagano Station and ride it to Yudanaka Station (40-70 minutes, depending on whether you take local or express trains, ¥1,160), then take a bus from there. Board one heading in the direction of Kanbayashi Onsen (your stop) or Snow Monkey Park (just as close, your disembarkation point will depend on the type of bus you take)—the ride takes about 10 minutes and costs ¥310. There are a couple of buses most hours of the day. Have a look here (beyond the Engrish) for an idea of bus departure times. If you’re planning to stay in Shibu Onsen, note that it’s one of the bus stops along the way.
From the bus stop, it’s a 30-40 minute walk through the forest to the monkey bath. Wear sturdy shoes that you don’t mind getting wet (mud and slush abound, especially in winter) and make sure they have good grip to avoid slipping and sliding. The park entrance fee is ¥800 for adults and half that for kids.
The Snow Monkey 1-Day Pass
A money-saving tip is to use the Snow Monkey 1-Day Pass for your meanderings to and from Jigokudani. The pass, which costs ¥3,200 for adults (half that for kids) and can be purchased at Nagano Station (the Dentetsu Line side), gives you one day’s unlimited use of the Nagaden buses and trains, and includes the entrance fee to the monkey park. You’re looking at a minimum of ¥500 in yens spared—so it’s well worth picking up a pass when you arrive in Nagano.
One-day tour packages
Cheapos wanting to go the easy, pre-packaged route can book a spot on one of several tours up to the snow monkey park. Some of the more reasonably-priced options include the following:
- Bus tour from Tokyo to Jigokudani: Pick-up and drop-off in Shinjuku, includes lunch, starts at ¥16,500
- Snow monkeys and skiing tour: Pick-up and drop-off in Nagano (make your own way there), includes visit to ski resort, starts at ¥17,800
- Private taxi tour with visit to Obuse Town: Pick-up and drop-off in Karuizawa (make your own way there), includes visit to the hometown of ukiyo-e legend Hokusai, starts at ¥15,500
Note that some tours only run during the winter months.
Overnighting: Accommodation options
If you want to spend the night in the area, you’ve got three main options (four, if you do a quick side-trip from a ski resort like Nozawa Onsen). The closest accommodation to the snow monkeys is the Korakukan ryokan, a traditional Japanese joint which is in the valley itself. It’s not cheap, but it does offer an up-close-and-personal view of the primates and a rare chance to bathe with them in the facility’s own outdoor hot spring bath. There are indoor and private baths too, if you aren’t so keen on sharing with Curious George and his crew.
Your other options are staying in the nearby towns of Yudanaka or Shibu, where you’ll be able to find cheaper hotels and inns, most of which feature their own hot spring baths too. You can also walk around and visit the numerous public baths in the area—many of the onsen use an honesty-box system for payment.
No monkeying about: Rules and reminders
The monkeys may like bathing, but they’re far from domesticated. Like any wild animals, it’s important that you don’t try to touch or feed them. Leave doggo at home, keep a safe distance, avoid looking in their uncannily-human eyes (they’ll take it as a sign of aggression and may come at you), and don’t try and bathe with them (unless you’re doing so at the Korakukan Ryokan). Just enjoy the sight of them being the ultimate cheapos—taking advantage of a 100% free outdoor bath.
Special thanks to fellow cheapos Selena Hoy and Kaori Nagy for their help with this Tokyo to Jigokudani article!
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