One of the best things to do during the winter in Japan is to take a trip up north to the Snow Monkey Park near Nagano.
During the winter (and sometimes summer) you can see tons of snow monkeys warming up in the natural hot springs, and it makes for some cool and hilarious photo ops.
The park can be done as a long day trip from Tokyo, but it’s even better to combine it with something like Matsumoto Castle as a 2-day trip from Tokyo.
Visiting The Snow Monkey Park
The Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is a group of natural hot springs in the mountains near Nagano, and it’s visited by hundreds of Japanese Macaques (aka snow monkeys) from the forest that like to bathe and let off steam in the hot spring.
Since the park is located at the end of a 1 mile (1.6 km) valley up in the mountains, you have to do a bit of easy hiking to reach the monkeys. The ‘park’ is basically just a few hot springs and a small gift shop with restrooms.
There’s a small fence around the main hot spring, but you can still get just a few feet away from the monkeys and take some great pictures of them chilling out. The baby monkeys usually join in for the jacuzzi sessions too.
The monkeys are super relaxed and easy to photograph. If you’ve been to the Bali Monkey Forest before, this place is way more tame! You still shouldn’t bring any food with you to the park, but aside from that the monkeys are well behaved and won’t attack you or try to steal your stuff.
- Summer: 8:30 – 17:00 (April to October)
- Winter: 9:00 – 16:00 (November to March)
- Adults: ¥800 ($7.35 USD)
- Kids 6-12: ¥400
- Kids 5 & Under: Free
How To Get To The Snow Monkey Park
The Snow Monkey Park is located in the Nagano prefecture of Japan.
The first step is to get to Nagano Station. Tokyo has multiple train and bus options to get there, or you can also do the trip from other nearby areas in Japan. If you plug in Nagano Station in Google Maps, it will show a list of your options.
From Nagano Station take the east exit, and there will be an express bus that goes directly to the park. This bus ride takes about 45 minutes and costs ¥1,400 each way. The first bus runs at 8:15 AM during the winter, but it varies depending on the season. There’s a complete timetable at this website.
There is also a combined ticket you can buy that includes the express bus (both ways) along with the park entrance fee for 2 days, for ¥3,500 total (half that for kids). It’s a great idea to pick this up if you plan to spend 2 days visiting the park, but it’s still a cost savings even if you only spend one day there.
Hiking Trail To The Park
Once you arrive at the bus stop for the Snow Monkey Park, it’s a scenic 30-40 minute hike to the hot springs. There’s no way to skip this hike, but the snowy views along the way make it one of the best parts of the trip.
The trail is snowy/muddy/icy and slightly uphill at times, but it’s still not too hard and I saw lots of people doing it with kids.
There’s a small shack at the start of the hike where you can rent crampons to help with traction, but I don’t think it’s necessary at all, even in the winter. The ice patches are pretty obvious and easy to avoid if you watch for them.
Best Time To Visit
The monkeys can be seen any month of the year, but it’s best to visit in the snowy winter months from December to March. You’re practically guaranteed to see the monkeys if you go in January or February.
Dress warm if you go in the winter, because it was around 20-25 F (-5 C) when I visited in January. Much colder than Tokyo! There’s a small heated gift shop near the springs where you can go warm up and thaw your hands between monkey viewing sessions if you need it.
Visiting In Summer
If your only option is to visit the park in the summer, you still have a decent chance of seeing the monkeys because the park staff feeds them regularly and that encourages them to keep coming back; in the summer they’re less likely to dip in the hot springs though, so that limits your photo ops.
There’s a live cam at the park’s official website that you can use the day before your trip to see if the monkeys are coming around, but the biggest factor is still the season that you go; winter is best!