Sunday, January 22, 2017

Jigokudani Monkey Park

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We had decided to stay in Yamanouchi specifically because it was close to the Jigokudani Monkey Park, in a narrow valley full of geothermal springs.  The onsens in town are all fed by similar hot springs; the one at our ryokan the night before was fed by an open air trough spilling into each of the tubs. 

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As we checked out from the ryokan, we asked about the possibility of driving to the park, based on a tiny road that David had found on the north side of the river that was only labeled “winter closure”.  The young lady helping us didn’t know about the road condition, but translated our question to an older gentleman who nodded enthusiastically and rattled off a reply which was translated back fairly briefly as “you’ll be fine.”  Our guide books assumed we did not have a car, and only presented the option of taking a bus up the south side of the river, and then hiking a steep trail for a little over a mile.  The first bus started later than we wanted to, so we decided to see what the tiny road was like.  The gentleman followed us out to the parking lot, and then stood in the street to hold any oncoming traffic, and directed us out onto the street.  Lovely!

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The road was quite narrow, and occasionally steep, but paved, and an easy drive.  It terminated in a small parking lot, and we walked less than a quarter of a mile to the park along a gentle trail along, and then across the river at the center of the valley.

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On our walk in we passed a geyser which was pretty in the morning light; also some strangler vines that were enormous.  We started seeing macaques in the distance as we got near the park—especially around the geyser.

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We were there early enough (before that first bus, let alone the 30 minute hike) that there were only a couple of other tourists, and also a couple of park rangers spreading something that looked like oats out around the hot springs pools to draw the macaques closer to the area. It looked to be of interest to them, but certainly not enough material to feed them entirely.

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They were fairly rambunctious and playful at that hour. While we tried our best to stay out of their way, they certainly had no such concern they raced around us. At one point Lana was convinced one was going to take a shortcut between her legs!

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This gives you a good idea about how close we were to them. The warnings about how to behave around them were somewhat sparse, with the most strenuous advice being to put away your food and water, and not to get too close to them (although that was hard to comply with given how close they got to us), but it would seem that they are generally unconcerned with tourists. Certainly more well-behaved than their counterparts we met in Bali and Siem Reap. Of course these were not fed by a steady stream of tourists, which helps a lot with that.

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They certainly provided us with some great shots, whether they were posing for cameras or just doing their normal thing. In truth, they mostly acted as if we didn’t exist. At most looking a bit annoyed if they had to swerve around us. Unlike any of our other encounters with macaques, they didn’t think we had anything to give them. Their interactions with the rangers who were spreading food out (that’s what is floating in the water around the guy in the photo below) were also not greedy or demanding. We’ve traveled many places where the locals exploit the resident mammals for tourism, and while we did pay a park entrance fee this didn’t have that same vibe. Of course, we would expect nothing less from the Japanese.

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We saw several babies that were at varying ages, but all very very cute.

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This was a relatively recently born baby, both judging by its size and well, other observable factors (cropped out for your benefit!).

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This old dame still cracks us up. If you zoom in you can see that her teeth are fairly brown, as well as her muzzle being somewhat greyer.

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We’d seen the Snow Monkey Livecam before we headed to Japan, so it was interesting to see it from the other side, as it were.  The younger monkeys liked to use the cable harness as a rope walk, which might explain why the livecam was broken when we were there.

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We spent about 45 minutes hanging out with our new funny friends before the first horde of tourists from the bus in the guidebooks arrived. They were both loud and many, and that seemed like the perfect time to head out. It was one of several times we were glad we decided to rent a car and explore this area on our own schedule.