If you’re willing to go off the beaten path, you may end up in hell. There are monkeys in hell. Jigokudani (Hell Valley) in Northern Nagano prefecture is where some of the famous hot springs monkeys live.
After a long car ride through mountains, forests, and pencil-thin roads, we finally arrive at a dirt parking lot and an unassuming little sign reading: “Monkey Park this way.”
Now, I’ve often been places where they assume patrons are gullible, camera-toting zombies instead of real people equipped with built-in, foolproof bullcrap detectors. And my first impression is that Monkey Park looks a lot less like hot springs monkeys and a lot more like hokey carnival attraction.
Still, we came all this way to see monkeys and we’re going to see monkeys. As we go further my doubts about this place recede when we realize it’s actually gorgeous.
There’s a little building serving as a ticket booth/souvenir shop selling monkey merchandise. I rarely get souvenirs though, and just glance through a few prints with no intention to buy. We give our 500 yen to a couple of very bored looking ticket vendors then read the big sign warning us to:
1) Take off anything shiny.
2) Don’t feed the monkeys.
3) Don’t touch the monkeys.
4) DON’T LOOK THE MONKEYS IN THE EYE.
“Kowai,” she says. Scary.
She’s getting nervous. I’m imagining epic monkey battles. The part of me that is convinced that Bruce Lee being my great, great Wung Chun kung fu uncle actually means something tells me I can handle a squad of ninja monkeys. By myself.
In the interior a geyser is bellowing a continuous stream of boiling water into the sky. I go for a closer look and see that this micro-eruption is really a PVC pipe hammered into the ground.
Now, despite its deep traditions, Japan is a very forward-thinking country. Usually this manifests in anthropomorphic robots who can fold your laundry, but occasionally there are modern “improvements” to ancient structures where someone just couldn’t help but add a bit of polish to what would have been better left alone. The result is something like the botched restoration of the “Ecco Homo” in Spain–more a mildly retarded monkey than a mural of Christ.
After looking around a bit more I catch sight of the first monkey strolling along a hot spring shelved along the mountain. Well, there’s one. Following it’s departure is a couple coming out for a dip, wrapped in towels. The guy flings his off just in time to get his naked picture taken by some passing German tourists. I forgo taking any pictures of naked Japanese men.
Following the partial nudity, the signs guide us to a long pathway where the monkeys are grooming each other along stone walls. These are not Curious George. They have big red faces and big red butts. The babies are cute though. The walkway leads to the very bottom of the valley, where the monkeys live.
With wild monkeys running around everywhere, the first five minutes were a bit tense. They can get very close, but you get used to them once you realize they’re more interested in picking through pebbles than you. Since I went in summer, none were taking baths, so instead we gawked over the babies playing on the ropes.
I really enjoyed Hell Valley. It’s a beautiful place in the middle of nowhere with free-roaming monkeys. Since Japan is actually extremely mountainous, only around ten percent is habitable by humans. The rest is given over to the monkeys, and only in a few places, like Jigokudani, do the two worlds intersect.