I hear a splash and look towards the hot spring. Mist dominates the scene, drifting around the dark shape that has just entered the water. I know it’s one of the snow monkeys that live in the area but I can’t yet see it clearly.
I turn to my left, where more monkeys are descending from their natural habitat in the snow-covered mountains. They are heading towards the pool that provides a warm alternative to the sub-zero temperature out of the water.
Some of them stop at the bottom, foraging on the ground for food. Two youngsters begin wrestling with each other, their fur turning white as they tumble across the snow. Others continue to the hot spring, one walking past me as if I am not here. They are aware of – but uninterested in – my presence.
One by one, more monkeys enter the water and through the mist I see the pink face of the one that had reached it first. Its moment of peaceful solitude is over, but I don’t think it minds – after all, snow monkeys are very social animals.
Some of the monkeys begin forming groups in the water, taking turns to groom each other as they split hairs to remove lice and other unwanted insects stuck in the fur. A baby clings onto its tired-looking mother and begins suckling. Others float quietly in the water, enjoying the warmth it provides.
This is Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions. It offers the opportunity to observe the monkeys – officially known as Japanese macaques – in their natural environment at close proximity. During the winter months the combination of their endearing personalities with a snow-covered landscape, provides endless photography opportunities.
Tourists, nature lovers and photographers regularly head to the park near Nagano for a closer look at the animals officially known as Japanese macaques, particularly in winter months when they descend each day from the snow-covered mountains to warm up in a small hot spring and drink from a nearby creek.
Their endearing personalities and social interactions make them entertaining photography subjects, particularly through the mist of the hot springs in the dramatic snowy landscape.
The photos I took of the snow monkey were amongst the favourites of my time in Japan, but the experience itself was mixed. Although this is fantastic opportunity to enjoy a wild encounter with snow monkeys in their natural habitat, the popularity of the park as a tourist attraction has both pros and cons for photographers.
I’ve shared these tips based on a winter visit in early 2017 to help you set realistic expectations, get the most out of your time in the park and return home with a great collection of photographs.
If I only offered one tip this would be it, as the park can get very crowded, especially around the small hot spring. In winter, the park opens at 9am and arriving at this time gave us an hour or two without the crowds. There is a 2km walk from the car park to the main entrance, which takes approximately 30 minutes based on your level of fitness, so give yourself enough time to reach the entrance for opening time.
There are generally four areas from which you can photograph the monkeys: the hot spring, a creek, a small bridge separating the two and the path from the park’s entrance. As the hot spring is most popular and offers the best opportunity for the dramatic misty shots most people are after, it’s worth heading there as soon as you arrive and make your way to the other areas after the crowds arrive. It’s a relative small location so it’s not difficult to keep switching between vantage points, depending on the conditions and movement of the monkeys.
It’s likely that you’ll see monkeys on the path as you head to the entrance. Don’t be distracted by them, you’ll see plenty after the entrance and you’ll see more on your walk back.
The hot spring offers the irresistible portrait of a monkey reflecting in the water, surrounded by mist. But the opportunities don’t stop there. The different vantage points offer views of youngsters wrestling with each other, families huddled together, monkeys descending the cliffs of the mountains, jumping across the creek, playing in the snow, climbing trees and walking on the paths. Shoot close to create stunning portraits and shoot wide to create a sense of place.
This applies to all wildlife photography as shooting the subject at eye level where possible helps create an intimate connection, instead of a feeling of being on the outside looking it.
Photographers shooting snowy landscapes for the first time are often disappointed to see the magical white scene in front of them morph into a dull, grey colour in their shot. Without getting too technical, this is a result of your camera’s in-built metering system. To combat this, over-expose by 1-2 stops, reviewing your histogram to perfect.
I carried two bodies with me to avoid changing lenses in the snow/rain and used my 100-400mm for probably 85% of my shots. The 24-105mm was my second lens, used when I wanted to shoot wide with the landscape. This worked well for me and also kept my backpack light for the 2km walk to the entrance.
Food and Drink
As there are no food or drink facilities in the park itself (there is a café/vending machine near the car park), you’ll need to bring some along if you plan on spending the day in the park. But remember the monkeys are curious and if they see an open bag or food in your hand, they’ll try and grab it – and not only does this make you go hungry, it’s forbidden to feed them and not healthy for them. There are lockers at the entrance, where you can leave anything you don’t need for photographing the monkeys.
Be prepared for snow and rain with a rain sleeve or waterproof cover for your camera.
Carrying your gear in a small backpack makes the walk to the entrance easier and allows you to leave some items in the lockers (such as food and drink) whilst having others (equipment) in your pack with you. Just remember to keep you pack closed when not using it as the monkeys are curious little things.
Although you may warm up on the 2km walk to the entrance, you won’t be moving around much after that and standing in potential sub-zero temperatures for hours gets cold. ‘How cold’ depends on your own disposition to cold weather. Following the ‘layers’ approach of a thermal base, warm mid-layer and waterproof outer layer is recommended. You’ll also appreciate a warm hat covering your ears, thin thermal gloves whilst using the camera and a second warmer pair for keeping warm whilst not shooting.
Warm and comfortable shoes with a grip sufficient for walking in the snow is a much better idea than the high heals I saw one person arrive in (true story!) The path to the entrance is a winding uphill walk through the forest, and although it is relatively easy the path can get slippery, especially later in the day.
Don’t touch the monkeys. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times I heard one of the rangers reprimanding someone for doing this.
Bring a 100YEN coin for the locker if you plan to use one.