Jigokudani …


This was the view from my hotel balcony at Kambayashi Onsen as the sun made its presence felt in the sky.

After breakfast we walked a couple of kilometres up to the valley of hell, Jigokudani. This is a snowy hell with added steam. A mountain stream runs through a steep sided valley, natural hot springs provide the steam. The sun penetrates to the valley floor for only a fraction of the day, we were warmly dressed.

This is the site of the Snow Monkey Park, adults ¥500, children half price. The only place in the world where you can see Japanese Macaques taking a dip in the onsen.

Japanese macaque are found throughout the main islands of Japan, except Hokkaido, and many of the small islands. Studies of them began in 1948 on the southern island of Koshima. Following the troop was impractical because of terrain and vegetation so the researchers used food to bring the monkeys to them. This is especially effective in the winter when the monkeys have a fairly hard time. It became the pattern in Japanese primate research.

Macaques are intelligent creatures, if you present them with food you also present them with some spare time.  In 1953 a young female in the Koshima group, given the name Imo, began washing her sweet potatoes. Her mother picked up the practice. By 1962, about three quarters of Koshima monkeys over two years old washed their food. Imo’s next stroke of genius was to find a way of separating wheat and sand. Drop a mixed handful on water, sand sinks, wheat floats, scoop up wheat and eat. Researchers have seen a number of such innovations and they tend to come from the youngsters.

Way to the north, in the mountains of central Honshu, also in the fifties another troop of monkeys began another novel practice of hopping into the onsen. They didn’t wash first and their toilet habits were less than ideal so they weren’t exactly welcome at the local tourist establishment that they began visiting. So they were provide with their very own spa pool.


They are fed three times a day, good numbers are present in the winter, fewer in summer.

Hang on to your possessions around the monkeys. I saw several thefts of property. It is reported that monkeys in Mino near Osaka have learned to steal purses and wallets and take out the coins and use them to buy drinks and snacks from vending machines.

Their natural diet is broad, mainly but not exclusively vegetarian. A male weighs 10 – 14 kg, females are smaller at 8 – 10 kg. They live in groups that are day active. The groups are hierarchical, males gain seniority with age, females inherit their status from their mothers. This difference may be explained by the fact that females usually stay in their natal group whereas the males disperse to other groups as they approach maturity.

I spent a couple of days watching the macaques. Adults spend a lot of their time grooming and being groomed, the youngsters are fond of play, squabbles are frequent only rarely getting close to the point where actual harm is inflicted. Mothers are attentive to their babies. Mating gestures, often with the same sex, are fairly frequent and are mainly about showing and acknowledging rank. This though is for real …


Much of the time it’s all about keeping warm …






Snow Monkeys and Cranes …

Back at the Haneda Excel Tokyu Hotel it was time to meet up with my companions for the Zegrahm Expeditions Snow Monkeys and Cranes tour of Japan. It is a very popular tour that I have been hearing about for years and was obliged to book about three years ago. You can find the brochure <HERE>. The itinerary is summarised on their map.

SnoMosand Derick

Japan is a country of marked seasonality. This is a winter tour which will give access to some spectacular wintering migrant birds and it will also show the Japanese Macaques at their most photogenic. It is not the best time to see the smaller birds but you can’t have it all.

As well, one expects, from Zegrahm, excellence in tour leaders, great accommodation, at least two kilos weight gain from the good food and a stream of cultural insights. In short, the bird watcher can take his wife without laying himself open to criticism. In fact, you don’t even have to be a bird watcher at all.

The leaders on this occasion are Mark Brazil and Mineko Dohata.

Dr Brazil is an ornithologist and a prolific writer. He was once a professor at Rakuno Gakuen University in Hokkaido. Although that is no longer the case, any thought that he is no longer an educator has to be dispelled, he just can’t help sharing his extraordinary knowledge. He writes a nature column for the Japan Times and he has written the book on Asian birds. Originally a pom, despite which he is a lovely bloke, he has lived in Japan for much of his adult life. Mark has made major contributions to the understanding of speciation in Japanese convenience stores, not all of which seems to be allopatric.

Mineko-san is a nationally certified guide. She lives in Kyoto. Her English is impeccable. She manages to convey the impression of the archetypal Japanese woman, polite, deferential, shy whilst at the same time bursting with humour and personality. She, also, will educate us over the next few weeks. And she will translate for us, keep us out of trouble and ensure that we have our seatbelts on whilst travelling. Oh so modest, but oh so influential, by the end of the trip we were all wondering why she has not yet been listed as a living national treasure.

That evening we wined and dined. Next morning we flew to Kagoshima Airport on the island of Kyushu.