This part of our trip was a highlight for both of us. A rustic ryokan, interesting food, hot springs, and the best part: monkeys!
How We Got There:
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is located in Nagano prefecture which is northwest of Tokyo. We took a train from Tokyo to Nagano city, a bus from Nagano city to Kanbayashi Onsen, and then a short 2km hike from Kanbayashi Onsen to the park.
We used our JR pass for the train (booked our tickets a few days ahead of time – super easy and more on that to come in another post about the JR pass). It took about 1.5 hours to get to Nagano station where we stored our suitcases in the station lockers (which were quite large), and packed backpacks for the next two nights. We went outside to the southeast side of Nagano station and found a bus stop bound for the Snow Monkey Park. I can’t remember the exact price but I believe it was around ¥1300 one way, and you pay for your ticket (cash only) when you get off the bus at the park stop (we recommend bringing enough cash for the ride back as well). It’s a good idea to have close to exact cash – the bus driver always had the right change but it seemed like a bit of a hassle for him when we had too big of bills. The bus ride is approximately 40 minutes long. I had a hard time finding the exact departure times anywhere so a quick google search along the lines of “snow monkey park bus departure times Nagano station” gave me the most up to date answer while I was there and we made it on time!
The Kanbayashi Onsen Snow Monkey Park bus stop is the last stop for the bus (if you are at a roman museum, you are in the right place). Once you get there you start walking up a hill and follow the signs to the Snow Monkey Park trail. It’s mostly uphill but definitely not a difficult hike as the trail is very well kept. I have read that it gets slippery in the winter but I couldn’t tell you for sure as we were there in April. At the end of the hike, we came to our Ryokan.
Most people seem to visit the park as a day trip. You could stay at the little onsen town at the base of the mountain, but we wanted the full experience. Why wouldn’t you want to sit in a traditional ryokan and watch the monkeys play on the roof outside your bedroom window?
Jigokudani Korakukan is the only place to stay up at the snow monkey park. It is over 100 years old and a very fun, rustic Ryokan experience! Not the place to stay if you want a five star, fancy hotel, but if you are up for a little adventure, it is totally worth it! There are no showers, only onsen (hot spring baths), and the bathrooms are mixed gender and generally have two stalls (one Japanese style toilet and one Western style toilet) and two urinals. There are large sinks in the hallways where you can brush your teeth and such if the bathrooms are full (though while we visited, we never ran into anyone else in the washrooms). There are private family baths you can reserve so you don’t have to share with strangers. There are also female and male baths. There is an outdoor co-ed onsen as well that is very public to anyone visiting the snow monkey park (women aren’t supposed to use it when the park is open).
The owner told us that it gets quite busy in the winter and that we were there in the off season. The first night we were there with two other groups (one couple and one family of 4). We all ate dinner together and then learned to play “Go” with the ryokan owner’s wife. That night we tried out one of the private family baths to see what the onsen experience was all about. The second night we had the whole ryokan to ourselves! We took advantage of the privacy and used the outdoor onsen at night (when all the tourists visiting the monkey park are gone). It was raining which helped make the hot water easier to get into. We also made use of the ping pong table when everyone was gone.
Our room was comfortable and traditional – tatami mats, sleeping on futons, and green tea waiting for us each day. The best part of our room was the monkeys though. They hung out on the roof right in front of our window, so we spent a ton of time watching them. Our only complaint was the ceiling was a tad low for my 6’3” husband.
The food is delicious. We had hot pot for dinner both evenings. There is a wide assortment of things to eat – wild boar, roots, fish (cooked and sashimi), and locust just to name a few! They seem to get a lot of the food themselves from around the ryokan which is pretty cool. For breakfast you can choose Western or Japanese style. Japanese style is similar to dinner, Western style is toast and salad. Lunch is not included. Portions were always very generous so we were never left hungry and finishing dinner was a struggle. The food was very tasty, and meals provided an opportunity to try things we had never heard of.
**Allergy note: This ryokan does not accommodate for people with allergies. I knew this ahead of time and just ate what seemed safest. This was an experience I did not want to miss and I didn’t want my allergies to get in the way. I packed snacks ahead of time and because all of our meals were hot pot, I was able to cook and eat the foods that were obviously safe while Ried would cook the rest after and do his best not to leave anything behind. I cannot guarantee that all meals are hot pot, and there are definitely things served that were not safe for my allergies but I managed to avoid getting sick while we were there. Dairy was never an issue though there may have been some on the toast with the western breakfast. Also, based on our experience, you will be served locusts with dinner, we tried them the first night and passed the second. The ryokan owners are not present while you eat so we never felt judged for not finishing everything.
What to do During the Day:
If ping pong tables and the onsen don’t keep you busy all day and you decide to spend more than one night at the ryokan, there are a few things you can check out around the ryokan.
First off: The monkeys! They were everywhere! We spent HOURS watching them play and run around. It was so fun! We spent the money to actually go into the Snow Monkey Park which is right beside the ryokan. It was worth paying to go in as they put out food for the monkeys so there are TONS of them hanging out everywhere including lots of babies. Our favorite part about staying in the park was the unlimited monkey time. After all the tourists leave and the park closes for the day, you can still hang out and watch the little guys for as long as you like! This was the only day we had much rain and it actually worked out for the best as the monkeys were cold enough to jump into the hot springs which made for some fun pictures. The ryokan owner said the monkeys are like his family – he was born at the ryokan and has lived his whole life surrounded by them. Sounds like a pretty fun family if you ask me – just don’t make eye contact and walk towards them…they get a little upset when you do that as Ried discovered!
The other thing we did is explored more of the onsen town towards Yudanaka station. We followed the road down from the ryokan (about a 2km walk) and enjoyed seeing the town. There’s hot springs everywhere, a river running through town, and the cherry blossoms were just starting to bloom that day!
Stay at Jigokudani Korakukan!! It was an amazing experience and one of my favourite parts of the trip! I would love to go back in the winter when the monkeys hang out in the onsen all day long.
I hope this answer some questions on where to see snow monkeys in Japan or how to bathe with the snow monkeys!