Monkey Business

Posted by on Oct 17, 2011 in Nagano, Travel Volunteer Journey | 8 Comments
Monkey Business

When Katy and I first met we went through our favourite movies together, as new couples tend to do. There was plenty of crossover.

Katy: “Have you seen Amelie?”

I had seen Amelie.

“Have you seen Garden State?”

I had, even though I couldn’t remember much about it.

“Have you seen Baraka?”

I had not, so we put it on.

For those who haven’t seen it, Baraka is a strange, beautiful story about, well, everything. It’s like an enormously long BBC documentary, minus the cuddly narration – minus all narration, actually. Occasionally troubling, always interesting, it’s well worth tracking down, especially if, like us, you enjoy travel.

It’s almost 20 years old now, but the messages and the imagery remain powerful. When we watched it that night in Dubai, we took hurried notes about things we’d like to track down if and when we finally went travelling together. We’ve done a pretty good job at ticking off our list, but one thing had been eluding us. Specifically, the little guy that pops up just two minutes into the movie.

I say “had been eluding us” because – with plenty of help from the Travel Volunteer Team – we managed to track down the famous snow monkeys (Japanese macaques) in northern Nagano. Since Baraka came out in 1992, these guys have gone on to become pretty famous, regularly appearing in the likes of National Geographic and all kinds of advertising campaigns.

There are many reasons why they’re so famous, but undoubtedly it’s their look of relaxation as they hide from the elements in warm onsen water that make them such a draw. This isn’t as Baraka somehow implies (at least to me) an aeon-old practise that’s gone on since the dawn of time. Humans did not follow their ancestors into the famous volcanic water – in fact the opposite is true, and it only started happening in the 1960s. From the trees the monkeys watched people relaxing, liked the look of the hot water and decided to change their normal behaviour to have a dip.

Eventually, the humans decided that they didn’t like sharing their onsen with other primates (we’re not sure the snow monkeys would have been overjoyed about it either) so a separate macaque-only spa was built further into the valley. The sexes can mix in the animal world, but the naked law is as strict as ever.

After charging along 2km of forest path, beneath more of those stunning colours, we bypassed the human option and immediately sought out our furry friends. They weren’t hard to find, in and around a little steaming bath in a dramatic valley with pine trees all around. We weren’t disappointed – at least not with the monkeys. As always they were a little frightening, a little too human, and a lot of fun.

And, despite the warm autumn air, some of them were in the hot spring.

Which was a bit weird. Firstly they didn’t look very relaxed: all that fur on a warm day, with hot water… It must have been like one of those charity masochists running a marathon. But unlike a sweaty man in a giant panda outfit, the monkeys weren’t really doing it through choice, but rather because they need food to fatten up before the winter comes. Not food that had accidentally been dropped by a tourist, either, but handfuls of what looked like pellets that had been thrown in the water by a park employee. “Don’t feed the monkeys” says the sign, not including: “Because we already do.”

But this isn’t a zoo. The macaques are free to leave at any time – and Katy and I are darting around the country accepting free food and free spas whenever we can. Is this much different?

Whatever your thoughts, now the monkeys hang around the onsen all year, waiting for a hand-out and fighting viciously when it comes. They’re modifying their behaviour.

Once again, they’re being shown what to do.



ケイティ: 『アメリ』って見た事ある?

ジェイミー: うん。

ケイティ: 『ガーデン・ステイト』は?

ジェイミー: うーん。見たけど内容は覚えてない。

ケイティ: じゃあ『バラカ』は?

ジェイミー: ・・・ない。




“彼ら”が有名なのにはいくつかの理由があるが、その最たるものは彼らが温泉につかってリラックスしている姿に他ならないだろう。 猿は人間の“祖先”と言われているが、温泉を楽しむことにおいては人間が“先駆者”のようだ。ある日人間が温泉につかってリラックスしているのを見た彼らは、それを真似し始めたのだ。人間は彼らと混浴する事を避けるため、彼ら専用の露天風呂を作った。 彼らの露天ぶろは“混浴”だが、裸で入るというルールは人間同様きちんと守られている。



だが最初、それは正直ちょっと不思議な感じで、彼らがリラックスしているようには見えなかった。そもそも今日はかなり暖かい陽気の日だ。だから温泉に入っている様子がとても不思議だったのだが、それが彼らにとって餌をもらうための手段なのだ。 そこは動物園ではない。彼らはあくまで自由の身なのだが、餌をもらうためにここにいるのだ。




  1. missmass
    October 17, 2011

    This is really cool! We just recently watched Baraka and thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t realise that the monkeys were in Japan.

    We’d love to observe these little fellas when we visit Japan in April…but you said that you managed to find them “with plenty of help from the Travel Volunteer Team” – should I take it that they wouldn’t be very easy for us to find without similar special connections? :)

  2. James Mundy
    October 17, 2011

    Baraka! – I had forgotten about that film. I saw that at Glastonbury many years ago and remember being amazed by the images and taiko drumming. I will have to watch that one again.
    BY the way Missmass, the monkeys are in a place called Yudanaka which can be reached by bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano and local train to the town. There is a 10 minute walk or so in the forests to find the monkeys, but it is not too hard. You will probably miss the snow in April and so there won’t be as many monkeys about, but you can still catch a couple.
    Of course, we can help you find them and do the rest of your trip! How ever you get there though, have an awesome time in this amazing country!

  3. jacqui
    October 17, 2011

    missmass –
    i’m not sure if this is the EXACT place K&J went, but it’s very popular and easy to get to for tourists to see the monkeys:

    have fun!!! :)

    • extrarice
      October 25, 2011

      Yes, that is the place. I went there myself about three weeks ago lol

  4. jacqui
    October 17, 2011

    you can also watch them live on cam here! :)

  5. Katy & Jamie
    October 18, 2011

    It was just a bit tricky for us to get to from our starting point in Gunma, using only public transport. I’m sure it’s not that hard in practise – especially if you’re coming from the Nagano side.

  6. missmass
    October 18, 2011

    Awesome! Thanks everyone! We’re still compiling our itinerary at the moment, but we’ll definitely put this on our epic must-see list!

    • Katy & Jamie
      October 19, 2011

      Try and get there in the early morning for the best light for photos on the ‘hot tubs’. The area is surrounded by mountains so the shade can make photos tricky! But it’s incredible, don’t under estimate how much time you can spend watching them. Have fun and if you have any questions about specifics just ask :)