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Of monkeys & foxes

Of monkeys & foxes

Appreciating the flora and fauna is one of the main reasons that visitors come back to Japan time and time again. Nature is a vital component of the country’s tourist attraction, and eastern and central Japan has some of the most beautiful sights that Mother Nature has to offer. Two unique faunas in Japan attracting people all over the world are monkeys and foxes, and it is the prefectures of Nagano and Miyagi respectively where they can see them in full view.

 

Nagano is a predominantly mountainous prefecture, and it has some of the most beautiful landscapes in Japan. During winter, it is one of the most sought-after locations for winter activities. But apart from winter activities, there is something else that Nagano has to offer: snow monkeys! And for Miyagi, another prefecture boasting amazing natural views, it is home to foxes!

 

For this article, I will introduce to you readers two special places where you can have a closeup view of snow monkeys and Ezo foxes, two animals indigenous to Japan!

 

Snow monkeys in Nagano, and red foxes in Miyagi. (Image credit: Koji Ishii / CC BY 2.0 (left), oonnuuoo / CC BY 2.0 (right))

 

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑)

Jigokudani Monkey Park is a park where visitors can witness Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys. It is located in Yamanouchi in the prefecture of Nagano, and is also part of the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park (上信越高原国立公園 Jōshin'etsu-kōgen Kokuritsu Kōen). It is one of the most popular animal parks in the region, and people from all over the world flock here to watch their simian counterparts in the wild.

 

Taking the bus from Nagano Station to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I personally have never seen these monkeys upfront, and I was interested to do so. As a former travel agent, I remember how the park is a regular item in almost every group tour by any travel agency, so it is ironic that I have been selling group tours to the place despite never been there myself (on top of never being to Nagano before, either). Back in February this year, I finally got to see the monkeys!

 

My journey started from Nagano Station (長野駅 Nagano-eki), where I took an express bus heading towards Kanbayashi Onsen (上林温泉), a hot spring resort before the park. Upon reaching the bus stop, it was making my way to the snow park all on foot!

 

Kanbayashi Onsen (上林温泉) is full of classy hot spring resorts for visitors wanting to stay close to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. (Image credit: 上林ホテル仙壽閣)

 

When I reached the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park bus stop, it was full of local and foreign visitors. I knew how popular the park is, and I like the idea of many people walking towards the same destination. Little did I know that the walk to the park was a little more intensive than I anticipated. The walk is estimated to talk around 35 minutes, but personally I think it depends on the walker. Moreover, the path to the park is slippery too so proper winter footwear is a must!

 

The walk to the park takes around 35 minutes, and proper footwear is a must. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Jigokudani Valley. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

When reaching closer to the park, visitors will witness the Jigokudani Valley, a magnificent valley that is perfect for photo taking. It is worth spending a few minutes here just to appreciate the beauty of the surrounding nature here, before making their way up to the park. In fact, they can even see a few snow monkeys frolicking here, even before reaching the park!

 

Jigokudani Valley. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Snow monkeys spotted at Jigokudani Valley. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Snow monkeys were everywhere when I entered the park! Freely climbing the stony hills and traversing the river below, they seemed to have a fun time roaming the entire sprawling park. Snow monkeys were everywhere when I entered the park! Freely climbing the stony hills and traversing the river below, they seemed to have a fun time roaming the entire sprawling park.

 

In fact, Jigokudani (地獄谷) means hell valley in Japanese, which is a common name for many places in Japan with volcanic activity. And when there is volcanic activity, that means sulphur is plenty and that means hot spring! The monkeys were having the time of their lives dipping in the hot spring water; I have to admit, I was pretty jealous myself!

 

Snow monkeys in Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 


Snow monkeys know how to enjoy hot springs too. (Image credit: SteFou! / CC BY 2.0)

 

One important announcement for visitors, however: they are not allowed to come in contact with any of the monkeys. They can be easily provoked, and they like to take people’s stuff without warning. Taking photos is fine, although not with flash.

 

People busy with photo-taking. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I had a fun time at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. Getting to see monkeys up close is something I do not get to do very often, and it was fun to see them having fun themselves. This place is a must-visit for anyone planning to go to Nagano, especially in winter!

 

Jigokudani Valley during sunset. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑)
Address: 6845 Yamanouchi, Shimotakai, Nagano 381-0401
Nearest station: Nagano Station (長野駅)
Opening hours: 8:30am–5pm (April–October), 9am–4pm (November–March)
Admission fee: ¥800 per adult (¥650 for groups of 20 or more), ¥400 per child (¥340 for groups of 20 or more)
Tel: +81-2-6933-4379

 

Access to Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park

Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線) bullet train which takes around 80–90 minutes to Nagano Station (JR長野駅 Nagano-eki). From there, proceed to the bus terminal at the back of the station, and take an express bus to the Snow Monkey Park / Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop. The journey takes approximately 41 minutes and costs ¥1,500 per adult for a one-way trip. Tickets for the bullet train are available at JR ticket offices (みどりの窓口 midori-no-madoguchi). Seat reservations are highly encouraged, especially during peak winter season. Business operations for Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is subjected to weather conditions, and operating hours differ according to the season.

 

Miyagi Zao Fox Village (宮城蔵王キツネ村)

For visitors who fancy watching foxes in the flesh, they can make a trip to Miyagi Zao Fox Village (宮城蔵王キツネ村 Miyagi-Zaō Kitsune-mura) where Ezo red foxes, also known as kita-kitsune (北狐) and indigenous to Hokkaido, roam the compound. The village is located in the city of Shiroishi in Miyagi prefecture, and visitors might be interested to know that there is a train station named JR Shiroishizaō Station (JR白石蔵王駅 Shiroishizaō-eki) that bullet trains stop at, making it quite easy to access from other cities!

 

A big gorilla awaits upon reaching the Miyagi Zao Fox Village. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

First-time visitors to the village, beware: there is a huge gorilla waiting for them at the entrance! Apparently, this gorilla claims to be a guardian deity (守り神 mamori-gami) that oversees the village.

 

There are many mascots at the entrance of the village, to my surprise. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Visitors should also take note of the advisory upon entering the Miyagi Zao Fox Village. Like the snow monkeys at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, the foxes are easy to provoke so visitors are reminded to maintain a safe distance from them at all times. Photo-taking is allowed, as long as it is without flash. And, hand warmers are strictly forbidden inside the compound; they can cause death to the foxes.

 

Ticket for Miyagi Zao Fox Village. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Sleeping foxes. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Fox at water trough. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Seeing foxes up close is a novel experience for me. Foxes can only be found in regions with temperate climates, so people such as myself coming from a tropical country like Singapore do not get to see foxes back home. I have only seen them on television, and I can say that to see them in person (and hear what they sound like, especially) is an eye opener.

 

Foxes in their pens. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Of course, Miyagi Zao Fox Village does not only have Ezo red foxes. There are other rare breeds as well, such as silver foxes, blue foxes, platinum foxes, shadow foxes, and cross foxes. There are more than 100 of these six breeds in the village, and it is the only one in the world where an entire compound is dedicated to raising only foxes.

 

Sleeping fox. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

On the way out, visitors can check out the souvenir shop selling everything themed after the foxes. One of the most adorable items on display was the plush toy; I imagine that this is something that would melt the hearts of many visitors!

 

Fox plush toy. (Image credit: しろいし観光ナビ)

 

I did not know that a quiet city such as Shiroishi would have a village of foxes. It is quite a serendipitous find, and just one of the many surprises that Miyagi prefecture holds. The village is definitely for fox fans, or those wanting to make new discoveries about Miyagi prefecture. It is a surprise that I am glad to know about!

 

Foxes taking it easy for the afternoon. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Miyagi Zao Fox Village in Miyagi Prefecture. (Video credit: JR East)

 

Miyagi Zao Fox Village (宮城蔵王キツネ村)
Address: Kawarago-11-3 Fukuokayatsumiya, Shiroishi, Miyagi, Japan 989-0733
Nearest station: Shiroishizaō Station (白石蔵王駅)
Opening hours: 9am–5pm (16 March–30 November), 9am–4pm (1 December–15 March) 
Admission fee: ¥1,000 per adult (free for children), optional animal feed for ¥200 per bag
Tel: +81-2-2424-8812

 

Access to Miyagi Zao Fox Village

Take the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) bullet train, which takes around two hours, to Shiroishizaō Station, and then take a shuttle bus to the park. The shuttle bus makes only one round trip per day. Another option is to take a taxi from the station (approximately ¥5,000 for one way; journey takes around 30 minutes). Seat reservations are highly encouraged, especially during peak winter season. Business operations are subjected to weather conditions, and operating hours differ according to the season.

(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the bullet train and make seat reservations for free! However, the fare for the shuttle bus ride from Shiroishizaō Station to Miyagi Zao Fox Village is to be paid separately.)

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥30,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥27,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Header image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang

 

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