Humans swim with wild animals all the time. Every time you take a dip in the ocean or in a river you’re likely to be swimming next to something or other – whether you’re aware of it or not. But humans and wild animals bathing together? That doesn’t sound right. And yet that’s exactly what started happening in the onsen (hot springs/baths) at Jigokudani, in Nagano Prefecture of Japan.
People have been coming to this part of Japan to take advantage of the naturally occurring hot springs for hundreds of years.
Then, one day, a ryoukan (traditional Japanese hotel) high up in the mountains, in a valley known as Jigokudani (which means Valley of Hell – due to the steam that can be seen rising out of the ground) decided to construct an outdoor pool next to their premises.
The pool was soon put together, and filled to the brim with naturally heated spring water. Humans began to visit; upon reaching the pool they would strip down, then slowly lower themselves into the water, groaning with pleasure as they did so. The population of Japanese Macaques that lived in the area watched on with interest.
Then, the inevitable: the macaques decided to try the baths themselves (actually they were encouraged into the pool by humans who threw food into the water).
For a short while the outdoor pool at Jigokudani was shared between the monkeys and humans, but this arrangement didn’t last long.
You might be thinking, how could sharing a bath with a monkey possibly go wrong? And one of the many answers would be: biting, and rabies. But in fact it is the large quantities of monkey poop floating around in the pool that dissuades most people from jumping in.
The young macaque in the photo above, after playing with one of the pool’s floating poops for awhile, decided to pop the poop into his mouth for a quick snack. He quickly spat it back out again.
A new onsen was eventually built at Jigokudani, just downstream of the first. The new bath house was enclosed with a roof and walls and a sign saying: no monkeys allowed!!.
But the monkeys were more than happy with the onsen they were already occupying.
These days the two hundred strong population of Japanese Macaques remain at the outdoor onsen throughout the year, and can be seen taking regular dips during the winter months.
Many of the macaques remain immersed in the water until they are red in the face. When they do pull themselves out of the pool, their dense fluffy fur is slicked down, and their appearance is like that of a drowned rat.
Many of the younger monkeys are inclined to jump and splash and play in the pool. The adults, in contrast, tend to shut their eyes and drift off into a trance-like state, perhaps dreaming of the warm summer months.
The most comfortable way to visit the snow monkeys is to pass a night in one of the ryoukans (traditional Japanese hotels) in nearby Shibu Onsen.
Practical information and how to reach Jigokudani:
Jigokudani Park is a 2.5 kilometre (thirty minute) hike from the town of Shibu Onsen. More transport info here.
More on Japan:
My favourite animal encounters:
or visit my unexpected animal encounters page