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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 enjoy a more tropical or subtropical area, and I think a lot of people will agree with that mindset. Though the Japanese macaques are found all over Japan, only those at the Snow Monkey Park in Jigokudani-Yaen Koen are famous as the “snow monkeys” for to their tendency of entering the hot spring water.

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 the age. The monkey has a short tail, about the same size of a human finger, which is different from the typical long-tailed monkey image most people have. It is estimated that just over 100,000 Japanese macaques live across Japan.


Why do the snow monkeys bathe in the onsen (hot springs)?


The reason why the monkeys take a hot spring bath is quite simple; to survive from the cold! So during the winter season (December to March) you’ll see monkeys sitting in the bath. You might also see monkeys in the hot spring at other times of the year for different purposes, such as to get food fallen in the bath, to swim or simply to relax.

Their habit of sitting in an onsen was first discovered at the ryokan (Japanese inn) Korakukan, located right next to where the Snow Monkey Park currently is. The onsen was originally made for the human guests, but at one point the monkeys got interested in it too. The problem with monkeys however, is that they do their business anywhere. So in order to have a clean bath for the humans but also a safe place for the monkeys, they decided to make a designated monkey onsen nearby. This is how the monkey park originally started.



How many monkeys are there in the park?


In the Snow Monkey Park there are about 150 Japanese macaques. Around 60 to 70% of the 150 monkeys are female. The park staff know pretty much every single one of the monkeys by their facial characteristics or even color of their fur.

Monkeys move in troops and and they consist of both adult males, adult females and their babies. The males tend to move from group to group or they leave to make their own small independent troop. To avoid confrontation with the stronger troops, they do not come down to the park and are more likely to appear near the human residential area. You may bump into those monkeys in the area where the snow monkey park bus stop is located. In that case, you should take caution with plastic bags, as the sound is very interesting for them because they think it might contain food, or when holding food since they might try to take it from you.


How can we distinguish male and female monkeys, and individual monkeys?


In their childhood it is very difficult to see whether a monkey is male or female. When they start maturing however, it becomes more apparent due to the scrotal sac on males or the nipples on females. Also, females tend to have a lighter fur and males a darker fur.
As for distinguishing one monkey from the other, the older they get, the more wrinkly their face gets and the darker the fur color. Also, the character of the monkey really begins to shine through. The wrinkles, fur color and attitude make it easier to identify the monkey. However, being able to identify each monkey takes years of practice, even for the park staff.


How old do the snow monkeys get?


The average life expectancy is about 25 to 30 years. The oldest monkey in the park is currently around 24 years old. As they age, their skin gets wrinkly just like humans, and they tend to get a crooked spine and become a little smaller.


How do they communicate among each other?


They largely depend on facial expression, attitude, or verbal sounds to communicate with other monkeys. They use verbal sound not as language, rather as a way to show their attitude. When you hear the monkeys chatter, take a guess and try to translate what they are saying to the others!


Where do they sleep?


The monkeys generally go back up the mountain next to the Monkey Park. They make their sleeping place somewhere else just about every day. One day they might have their sleeping quarters in the top of a tree and the next on the side of a cliff. They do tend to sleep with relatives or close friends and cuddle up during cold nights.


What do they eat besides the barley given by the park staff?


Especially during the spring and autumn they can forage the mountain for wild vegetables, nuts, flowers, fruits etc. The winter season is a troublesome one for the monkeys as there is close to no food to be found in the area. Only tree bark and winter buds are found. This is not the favorite food for the monkeys as the barely eat this in spring and autumn. The barley provided at the Snow Monkey Park at regulated times is much appreciated by the monkeys as it helps them survive.

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What are the differences between the Japanese macaques and other monkeys around the world?


The Japanese macaque are the only monkeys able to live under extreme cold weather conditions going as low as minus ten degrees Celcius or 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The snow monkeys bathing in the onsen to survive the wintery cold is a a unique scene only seen at the Snow Monkey Park.

Visitors find the monkeys generally very friendly and docile 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, or growl when you get too close to them.


Can I bathe with the monkeys?


The hot spring at the Snow Monkey Park is just for the monkeys. However, if you want to try and take a bath with the monkeys, you might try your luck at the nearby Korakukan Onsen. There is a possibility the monkeys will join you while you bathe in the open-air bath at the ryokan. Even in the off-season people can be seen bathing in the onsen, sometimes with a not a lot covering them up…


Do they bathe during the spring / summer / autumn too?


Sunbathing? Yes. In the hot spring? Not so much. You might see them in the bath taking a swim or bathing while enjoying lunch prepared by the park staff, but unlike the winter months there are definitely days when the monkeys just don’t feel like entering the bath.

The monkeys behave in different ways depending on the season and temperature of the day. When it’s very cold in the middle of winter, they tend to stay still to preserve energy and cuddle to warm each other or get in the onsen. When it’s warm and the sun is out, they tend to be more active and move around in the area. You’ll see monkeys grooming each other and kids playing under the sun.

Winter is not the only time you can see the snow monkeys as most of their time is spend at the park.There is however always a possibility of monkeys not to come down to the park because they are wild animals. When this happens the park staff will go to great lengths to try and get the monkeys to come down to the park. They will go up the dangerous mountains to see if they persuade the macaques into joining the visitors at the park.



What do the park staff do for their work?


Next to cleaning up the occasional feces, they are in charge of feeding the monkeys at set times and to ensure a harmonious coexistence between monkeys and humans. The latter is mostly done through enforcing some of the rules of the park.
①By not letting the monkeys be fed by visitors and feeding them at any given time, they make sure that monkeys won’t get into the habit of begging or stealing. It happens that occasionally a monkey tries to take something, but that is more out of curiosity than it is to get food.
②By not letting the visitors touch or get too close to the monkeys they not only protect visitors from possible monkey attacks, but also keep distance between the animals and humans so the monkeys hold on to their wild nature.