Friends: As I pulled into Joshin-Etsu (Hell's Valley) National Park after 10 miles of climbing, topped by a final mile of super steepness, I was relieved to see one of the monkeys I had come to see scampering in the distance on the mountain side. He wasn't photographable, but at least my 50-mile detour to see the snow monkeys wouldn't be entirely in naught. Obviously I had no clue as to the bounties that awaited me.
There are monkeys scattered all over the southern half of Japan, including the lower levels of Mount Fuji, but this was said to be the best place to see them, a few miles from a major ski resort 25 miles from Nogano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. An added feature of these monkeys was that they there were hot springs in the park that they were drawn to. The many steaming pools and geysers earned this park its name--Hell's Valley.
It was a half-mile hike and climb to the park entrance from the parking lot through the woods
along a river. I didn't see another monkey until I'd entered the park. A short ways down the path there were a handful of the small red-faced simians lolling about along the river, most in pairs grooming one another. In the distance I could see a cluster of tourists, but I was immediately drawn to these first monkeys I came upon. I wasn't sure if it was allowed to leave the path and approach them until I saw someone else up ahead having his own private photographic session just a couple feet from one of the monkeys.
As I strolled closer myself, the monkeys showed no concern or reaction whatsoever. This was amazing. The only warnings at the park entrance were not to feed the monkeys nor to bring in cats or dogs, so I didn't feel as if I needed to be too much on guard as I came closer and closer. The pair hardly payed me any attention. It took a while before they turned to look into the camera, but I got my picture and then more as I meandered over to others along the river bank. But this was almost wasted film compared to the photographic opportunities of the mobs of monkeys awaiting me up by their natural hot tub. As I hurried up, I passed several of the critters on the wooden walkway as if they were fellow pedestrians.
There were about 40 Japanese tourists, all armed with cameras, milling about by the hot springs where nine or ten of the monkeys were hanging out, some sitting on the edge and others submerged to their necks. In the middle sat a mother with one infant nuzzling a nipple and another curled to her side. The mother's eyelids were drooped and she looked so blissed out that I sniffed the air for the scent of cannabis, wondering if these monkeys were dope-smokers as well. A friend back in Chicago, who works in the monkey house at the Lincoln Park Zoo, says
after hours she and friends occasionally smoke amongst the apes, passing them a joint. The apes imitate their keepers drawing on the joint and passing it on. I could detect no evidence of that here, other than the occasional stoned expression.
Behind the natural hot tub was a multi-tiered wall with another 40 or 50 monkeys. There were also a handful just laying about amongst us intruders, sprawled contentedly as if we were all one big happy family. They were more tame than your neighbor's cat. And since the Japanese could be counted on to strictly obey the no feeding policy, resisting all temptations, the monkeys hadn't been corrupted into begging or nagging. Some of the younger ones were intrigued by a woman's walking stick and someone else's colored shoelaces, but otherwise they just hung out and let us photograph away. They were as polite and well-behaved as the Japanese. I even thought I detected an occasional bow from the monkeys.
There were several professional-looking photographers with heavy-duty tripods and long-lensed cameras, and a few prowling up the mountain side. This was most certainly a photographer's paradise. These photos would steal the show at any presentation. The monkeys star in the 1992 documentary "Baraka" of stunning sights around the globe.
I was shocked at one point to see someone tossing nibbles to the monkeys. Then I realized he was a ranger. He wasn't wearing a uniform, but he had stood out from the start from all the tourists by his rather disheveled attire. It was noon, feeding time. He scattered several buckets of a small noodle like object. The monkeys were in no rush to pounce on the food. It would have been easy to spend all day just at that one place. An occasional squabble did break out with some hissing and gesticulating, but nothing serious. One doesn't have to fly all the way to Japan to see the monkeys in their spa. They have a live cam pointed at them--www.jigokudaniyaenkoen.co.jp/
My only warning to anyone who has this national park on their itinerary is that they should not visit the monkeys early in their travels, as it will most likely overwhelm everything else they see and if they haven't gone digital, they could easily exhaust all their film.
Mount Fuji is just a day away. I'm eager to see how that compares. It is said to be the most photographed object in the world. Thick clouds lay ahead. If its not raining I can bike up 7,000 of its 12,000 feet.