THE SNOW MONKEYS FAQ
What kind of animal is the Japanese macaque?
Among the 180 species of monkeys that exist, the indigenous Japanese macaque is known to be the most northern non-human wild primate in the world. Most non-human primates tend to live in tropical or subtropical areas and the highly intelligent and adaptable macaques are no exception, being found throughout the main Japanese island of Honshu – from subtropical Kyushu in the south to the cold and snow of Nagano and beyond.
Macaques are indeed common in Japan however the troop residing in and around the Snow Monkey Park are famous for one unique reason – they are the only monkeys in the world known to enjoying soaking in hot springs. A behavior learned through first observing humans do so, the troop is now very accustomed to relaxing in the naturally hot water, especially during the cold days of winter.
Male monkeys weigh 6 – 18 kg (13 – 39 pounds) while females weigh 6 – 14 kg (13 – 30 pounds) with a height that ranges from 47 to 60 cm (1.5 – 2 feet), depending on age. Macaques have a short tail, about the same size of a human finger, which is different from the image many people have of long-tailed monkey species. It is estimated that just over 100,000 Japanese macaques live across Japan.
Why do the snow monkeys bathe in the onsen (hot springs)?
It has long been thought that the primary reason why the monkeys bathe is to survive the cold of winter hence the common sight (between December and March) of numerous monkeys in the hot spring. However, recent research has shown that the monkeys do so as a form of stress relief, with a particular tendency for pregnant (or females attempting to become pregnant)monkeys to spend longer periods soaking.
Outside of winter you will not see as many monkeys in the hot spring however they still enter the water to relax, swim, play, and grab food that has fallen in.
This unique behavior was first observed at a ‘ryokan’ (traditional guesthouse) called Korakukan, situated just outside of the monkey park. Having seen human guests soaking themselves in the water, the monkeys gave it a shot themselves and were hooked. While this immediately proved to be a popular sight for visitors, it was hardly hygienic to have monkeys and humans sharing the onsen, and the pool in the monkey park was created to give the monkeys a hot spring over their very own.
How many monkeys are there in the park?
There are an estimated 150 macaques in the troop that frequent the Snow Monkey Park. Around 60 to 70% of monkey are female, with each monkey’s lineage traced through its mother. Park staff know pretty much every one of the monkeys by sight, based on their facial characteristics and individually coloring.
Japanese macaques live in troops consisting of and females, juveniles and babies. Once they reach their maturity, males tend to leave their troop of birth and move from troop to troop or start their own small, independent troop. To avoid confrontation, other troops do not come into the monkey park but instead frequent human residential areas. You may bump into those monkeys around the bus stop or if you are staying in the nearby village of Shibu Onsen. If you do, you should take caution with plastic bags, as the sound attracts monkeys who know they may contain food.
How can we distinguish male and female monkeys, and individual monkeys?
While young, it is quite difficult to distinguish whether a monkey is male or female. Once they start maturing it becomes more apparent due to the scrotal sac on males or the elongated nipples on females. Females also tend to have a lighter fur while males often have darker fur.
Distinguishing between individual monkeys also becomes easier as they age due to wrinkles on their face, fur coloring, and scars and injuries picked-up through their lives. The personality of individual monkeys also becomes more apparent to park staff and frequent visitors, who can often tell one monkey from another based on its characteristic behavior.
What age do the monkeys live to?
Japanese monkeys can live up 25 to 30 years of age, with the oldest monkey in the park currently around 24 years old. As they age, their skin becomes wrinkly, they lose muscle-mass and become smaller, and often get a crooked spine. So just like humans, they tend to show their age.
How do they communicate with each other?
Much like humans, macaques communicate using an array of verbal sounds, facial expressions, and attitudes. Verbal sounds may not be considered language as such but conveys their attitude to other monkeys. Japanese macaques can be very vocal at times and you will notice a large scope in the sounds that they make, from high-pitched calls to guttural, aggressive shrieks. Listen to them and try to guess their meaning!
Where do they sleep?
The monkeys generally leave the park each night and go back into the mountains. The park is within their natural territorial radius – a region of several kilometers – and they move to a new place to sleep almost every day. They always sleep in elevated positions, most commonly in trees but also choose cliffs on some evenings, and tend to sleep with their relatives or close friends, cuddled up during the cold nights of winter.
When and why do the park staff feed them?
The monkeys are fed by park staff two to three times a day. They are usually given barley seed or soybeans with apples handed-out during green season. The monkeys were first fed in the 1950s to keep them interested in the region in and around the park. During that period, the development of nearby ski resorts was forced the troop out of the mountains and into areas of human habituation, where they learned to raid farms for crops and vegetables. Local farmers were understandably frustrated by this and saw the monkeys as pests. One of the founding reasons for the park was to give the monkeys somewhere to go where they’d be safe and feeding was first introduced in an effort to get them to stay put, for their own safety. After a little trial and error, their favored staples of barley, soybean, and apples were identified and they have been fed ever since.
It is worth noting that the monkeys are not given enough food to survive on and they still need to fend for themselves. Please note that visitors are not allowed to feed the monkeys under any circumstances.
What do they eat besides the food given by the park staff?
During the spring, summer, and autumn the monkeys forage through the mountains in search of wild vegetables, nuts, flowers, fruits etc. It is far more troublesome in winter, when food is much more scarce and buried under the snow, with tree bark and winter buds being the only reliable food in the mountains. Evidently this is not a favored food for the monkeys, who rarely eat it in spring, summer, and autumn.
What are the differences between the Japanese macaques and other monkeys around the world?
Japanese macaques are the only monkeys able to survive the extremes of cold and snow in northern Japan, regularly enduring temperatures of -10°C / 14°F. Visitors to the park find the monkeys to be very docile and relaxed compared to monkeys in other parts of the world. The monkeys tend to just ignore you as long as you don’t stare at them, get too close, or show them any food.
Can I bathe with the monkeys?
The hot spring in the park is only for the monkeys. If you want to try and take a bath with the monkeys, you might try your luck at the nearby Korakukan Onsen – the guesthouse where the monkeys first observed and copied the behavior of soaking in the hot spring. There is a possibility the monkeys will join you while you bathe in the open-air bath at the guesthouse (however we cannot guarantee how hygienic this is).
Do they bathe outside of winter?
Sunbathing? Yes. In the hot spring? Not so much often as they do in winter. Through spring, summer, and autumn you may well see monkeys bathing, swimming, or sipping from the onsen, but unlike winter you are very unlikely to see large numbers in the water at one time and it’s not uncommon for extended periods to pass by with no monkeys in the water at all.
Like humans, the monkeys’ behavior is affected by the season, temperature, and weather. In the depths of winter they tend to stay still to conserve energy and cuddle with each other to stay warm. In the warmth of summer they are more active and move around the park. Of course, when it gets too hot you’ll see them dozing in the shade or sprawled out on the path defeated by the summer sun.
Do the monkeys come to the park every day, even outside of winter?
Yes. The monkeys are wild but come to the park each day. Situated within their natural territorial radius, the park is a daily part of their lives and though nothing is forcing them to come or stopping them from leaving, you can be very confident that they will be there on the day of your visit.
Given that they are wild, there is always the possibility that they may not come on a particular day however this is very rare and might only occur once or twice a year. It’s more likely that they may not come in big numbers of a particular day. If you are worried about this, the autumn months of October and November are the least reliable time. It is mating season and the mountains hold an abundance of delicious wild food for the monkeys, keeping their minds preoccupied for a short of period. If the monkeys don’t come to the park, staff go to great lengths to locate them, trekking into the mountains in an attempt to find them, and coax them down with tasty apples. It usually works but every so often, even huge tasty apples may not be enough to move them.
What do the park staff do for their work?
The staff are their to ensure the well-being of both the monkeys and visitors to the park. Feeding the monkeys is part of their job. This takes places first thing in the morning, usually before any visitors are in the park, and again in late morning or the afternoon, when visitors are free to stand and watch. The staff always enforce park rules, again, for the safety of both the monkeys and visitors. This includes:
① ensuring that visitors do not attempt to feed the monkeys or show them any food. This rule is in place to stop the monkeys from associating visitors with food and then developing a habit of begging or stealing. In doing so, the monkeys retain their self-dependency and you will have the unique opportunity to be in close proximity to these very relaxed creatures.
② ensuring that visitors do not attempt to touch or get too close to the monkeys. The troop is very accustomed to human company and for that reason happily go about their daily business around you. Most of the time they will give you little attention or display a casual curiosity about you. It’s very rare that a monkey will attempt to take anything from you or be aggressive. If a monkey does attempt to take something from you, let them have it. If it’s food you will lose it. Don’t show them any (or anything that looks like food) and you’ll be fine. On the rare occasion that they grab something else, you’ll get it back. They have no interest in your wallet, sunglasses, or car keys.