There is white magic in the air and it is cold. The nearly 2km mountain path is mercifully flat but snowy and icy winding its way through a tall cedar forest. Anticipation mounting, I cannot wait till we get to the hot springs where the much-loved snow monkeys of Japan soak in winter.
Big plops of snow falling from the cedars’ laden branches are about the only sound around.
Finally the forest gives way and a sign of the times reads: “Airborne cameras not permitted to fly here”, so don’t bother to bring your quadcopter to the site.
When we finally arrive, there are about 30 snow monkeys about, big and small.
Some soak in the hot springs, some forage for food and one sits on the big casing of the video-cam that permanently surveys the site.
It is only while editing my photos that I discover this was a mother with a baby at her breast mostly hidden from view and therefore protected from the cold.
The only chance to see snow monkeys bathing is in winter. They only do it to keep warm so they are unlikely to go in the hot springs when the weather warms up.
The valley where the snow monkeys hang out is very deep and the sunshine never gets to the bottom so be prepared for cold and slippery conditions on the approaching 2km trail.
Temperatures in winter are always below freezing reaching to a very cold -10 Celcius. There are no facilities for wheelchairs.
These endearing snow monkeys are native to Japan and are nomadic, foraging wherever they like and moving around the forest freely.
The park has adopted a policy of feeding them with nutritious pellets in order to keep them coming to the site on a regular basis.
However, feeding times are not regular and not announced.
These macaques live in groups and show a strong loyalty to their family. Females remain within their birth tribe while males break off to find partners among other tribes.
How snow monkeys sleep
Females give birth at night only and mainly in spring.
These snow monkeys retire at sundown to sleep on tree branches or in the hollows of big tree roots; they huddle together while holding hands and legs.
Make sure you have plenty of memory in your camera, as you will shoot none stop for about two hours.
The expressions on the monkey’s faces are fascinating, especially while being groomed by others.
They look ecstatic or as in a trance.
The Jigokudani Monkey Park is not far from Hakuba ski fields but a bit complex to get to by public transport. Your best bet is to go to the Nagano station and take a bus from there.
However, hotels can help organise a day-trip, as there are some combination excursions with some interesting inclusions such as a visit to the town of Obuse, where Hokusai spent his later years.
Katsushika Hokusai, the famous 19th-century artist creator of the Big Wave – or Tsunami wave – and Red Fuji which are now symbols of Japan, lived here and his work is celebrated in a museum dedicated to his art.
Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park (6845 Yamanouchi-machi Shimotakai-gun, Nagano, Japan 381-0401, Phone 0269-33-4379) is open seven days a week (unexpected closures might happen due to the weather conditions). Admission fee: 500 yen
Obuse Hokusai Museum (485, Obuse, Obuse-machi, Kamitakai-gun, Nagano, Phone:026-247-5206) is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (subject to seasonal changes). Last admission 30 minutes before closing. Admission Fee: 500 yen. Closed: December 31, January 1.
Going on a ski trip? Here are some great resorts for your next Hakuba holiday.