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Japan: Snow monkeys

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Snow monkeys | Japan | Asia

[Visited: December 2010]

It was a cold morning in Nagano when we took a slow train to Yudanaka. The ride was already a treat: we managed to get a seat in the second row of the front. In the all-glass, round, panoramic area, we had the rare opportunity to look ahead of us. In a distance, we saw some small clouds in an otherwise milky-blue sky, under which the tree-covered mountains had a delicate layer of snow on them. The views were great, but we were on our way to the most special bit of the day. First, we had to take a bus from Yudanaka, for a short ride higher up on the mountains. The bus was using snow chains, which seemed a little overdone since there was no snow on the roads whatsoever. Surely, higher up, the conditions must be different. After we got off near Kanbayashi Onsen, we soon discovered that the road leading up from the main one was almost solid ice. Treacherous walking up on shoes without any protection against such slippery conditions took us to the trail leading further up through the woods. Here, there was more snow, some of it half frozen as well; it was clear that lots of people had walked this trail before. We hiked up as fast as possible, and with every step, felt more curious about what we were going to see: the snow monkeys of Jigokudani. A few of the Japanese macaques, as the monkeys are officially called, were just next to our path to the hot bath, they did not seem scared at all. We soon reached a smaller-than-expected hot bath: natural hot water in a rocky basin. There were quite a lot of people around, but fortunately it was possible to be right at the edge and enjoy the odd animals.

Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Deep-cleaning the fur of a young snow monkey

A bunch of perhaps twenty macaques were in the hot water, steam around them. Some were hanging on to the rocks, as if it were a pool-side bar, while others were cleaning each others fur. Occasionally, a small fight broke out, in which snow monkeys would chase each other, jumping over the bath and heads of monkeys in the water. It was a lovely and lively sight: something seemed to be happening all the time. I walked to the far end of the tub, and found a lone macaque sitting still on the edge of a rock. It was impossible not to notice the very pink colour of its face: it almost looked like a lobster that had been in cooking water for ten minutes. The furry macaque closed its eyes every now and then, and it almost seemed like it was meditating. I was so focused on watching its face, that I noticed the small monkey only later. Protected by a furry paw, the baby macaque was hiding from the cold in the warm hair. The two made a sweet sight. After looking at them for a long time, I decided it was time to also see what was going on in the hot bath itself. A row of macaques had formed in the middle, and they were cleaning each others fur - I guessed from lice even though I was not sure lice could survive being in hot water for a prolonged time. More action here, according to the character of the macaque. Some were just sitting on top of the rocks around the basin, enjoying the view, the fresh air, or trying to get their fur dry. Others were lazily clinging on to the rocks, as if about to order another beer. Every now and then, I saw a monkey moving through the water: it was mostly walking, not so much swimming.

Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Japanese macaque reflected in the water of the hot bath

I descended further down to the lowest level. I now was at eye-level with the macaques. Even though the information given before the visit suggested that these animals are wild and you should avoid eye contact, it did not seem to bother them in the least if people looked straight into their face. Inevitably, also Japanese macaques have their character traits: some of them were good-humoured, while others seemed pretty aggressive and at times mock-charged some of the curious visitors around the onsen, or hot bath. It was difficult, sometimes, not to step forward and caress the furry beasts: some of them looked absolutely adorable. Then again, when I saw one of the macaques yawn, its exposed teeth reminded me of the capacity they have at inflicting serious damage. The scenes were still so natural and almost human. A mother taking care of her baby, a young macaque cleaning the face of its father; a grown-up getting out of the bath for a short toilet break, while others just did it in the bath itself - the water was still drunk... But the principal activity seemed to be the cleaning of the fur: and the monkey indulging in the cleaning process clearly enjoyed it as a special treat. Some were bending backwards with their eyes closed: the hot water, and the personal attention of the other macaque apparently took them into ecstacy. Despite the many other visitors, the macaques were a unique sight - they moved into this bath in 1964 and have decided to stay. In the rather harsh wintery conditions of the Japanese Alps, spending much time in the hot water turned out to be a pretty good idea.

Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Snow monkeys getting hot at the natural hot bath
Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Snow monkey baby hiding in the fur of a parent
Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Snow monkey with typical deep pink coloured face
Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Young snow monkey hiding in the fur of a parent
Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Japanese macaques getting rid of fleas
Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Japanese macaques in the onsen, or hot bath
Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Snow monkey enjoying two other monkeys defleaing him
Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Snow monkey getting anti-flea treatment
Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Getting rid of the fleas snow-monkey style
Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Snow monkeys in the pool bar of the hot bath
Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Japanese macaque at the hot bath
Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Relaxing snow monkey at the hot bath
Picture of Snow monkeys (Japan): Japanese macaque staring into nowhere

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