Keep a good look out for the mischievous macaques you'll see along the trek to Jigokudani Yaenkoen near the Nozawa Onsen ski resort.
‘Whatever you do, don’t look them in the eye,” deadpans our tour guide, prompting a sea of silence from nervous tourists who are about to trek 1.6km down a narrow, icy trail to see the snow monkeys, aka Japanese macaques, at Jigokudani Yaenkoen.
“They see this as a sign of aggression, so just look away,” she continues.
It’s not exactly what you want to hear moments before coming face to face with a frenzied horde of primates.
But it’s protocol for all guides to warn tourists of the no-noes before entering monkey territory.
This includes no touching or feeding the monkeys, no sudden movements that may startle them and absolutely no bringing food into the park, unless you want to draw attention to yourself.
Warnings aside, getting up close to the snow monkeys is a must if you’re visiting Japan during winter.
Native to Japan, most of the macaque population live on Japan’s mainland Honshu island, with Jigokudani Yaenkoen among the most popular for tourists. Established in 1964, Jigokudani is tucked within Yudanaka National Park, about 90 minutes south of the quaint ski village of Nozawa Onsen in Nagano Prefecture, five hours from Tokyo.
Abuzz with tourists during winter, it is the only time of year when you can catch a glimpse of the lively macaques that flock to the park in their droves to be fed, because food is scarce in the colder months.
Gawking tourists let out audible gasps as they gather around a hot spring with their cameras in hand snapping photos of a dozen or so macaques that are taking a relaxing dip in a steaming-hot rock pool.
Several female macaques have their babies in tow.
Some plod along behind, wary of the crowds that have gathered around them, while others cling to their mothers.
For the most part, the macaques are oblivious to the human presence.
While the macaques reside in Yudanaka year round, it’s rare to see one up close outside the winter months.
After a tranquil 20-minute walk through a windy, snow-covered trail lined by pine trees, we finally arrive in monkey territory.
Our guide assures us not to be alarmed if one brushes past you as they whizz around the park.
The trek into Jigokudani
isn’t arduous but be prepared for an uphill hike as you approach the the monkey
area and given that the trail into the park is extremely icy, decent walking
shoes are a must, as is warm, comfortable attire.
I found disposable heat packs (which can be bought at most supermarkets or pharmacies) came in handy, particularly when temperatures dipped below zero later in the afternoon.
If you plan to visit Jigokudani without a guide — which isn’t hard given there is sufficient signage that will guide you to the monkeys once you arrive at the park — entry is 500yen ($6) for adults or 250yen ($3) for children. But if you prefer to book ahead, most day tours will set you back around 5800yen ($67) for adults and 3800yen ($44) for children.
This often includes transport to and from the park — our trip included a lunch stop at a popular sushi train, which added to the experience of true Japanese hospitality — park admission and a guide who will take you to the monkeys.
Picture at top: Snow blankets the countryside around Nozawa Onsen. Picture: Vanessa Williams
If you’re staying in Nozawa Onsen, a snow monkey day tour can be booked through Nozawa Holidays.