Monkeys in Rural Japan

Of course everyone knows there are monkeys in Japan--where else do those snow monkey pictures come from? But Nagano (where the monkeys are known to take baths), and Kyoto are not the only places to see Japan's famous Japanese macaques. My family and I live in rural Niigata prefecture where every year, sometimes several times a month, we encounter these special monkeys.
Most people imagine these monkeys as mostly living in zoos or bathing in Nagano's natural hot springs, but really they live all around most of Japan. They tend to avoid contact with humans, so you're unlikely to encounter them on your visit to Tokyo, but if you take a trip out of the city, you may very well run into some furry friends!
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Japanese monkeys are a lot of fun to watch, and they are unlikely to cause any trouble to you, but I will recommend some ways to safely watch monkeys on your visit to Japan.
  1. Keep a safe distance. Do not go directly under the trees where they are climbing. When a wild animal feels cornered (no matter how cute), they are liable to attack.
  2. Do not offer food—they may learn to expect food from humans and cause problems with the locals or not learn to survive in the wild
  3. If you want to get closer, stay in a car.
  4. Bring binoculars to get a closer look or a zooming lens for your camera.
They do most of their migrating and are most easily found in early spring (as depicted in these pictures I took in spring 2016) or in the fall. All year round you can find mother monkeys with their young holding tight to their mother's chest or back, and these are especially cute. However, the mothers with young are most likely to attack, so be careful when approaching these monkey families.
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They tend to eat new leaves and flowers, as well as insects. However, they have a varied diet, so you may find them eating many other things, too. The locals have found that Japanese monkeys love ransacking their gardens, so many farmers in Gunma and Niigata prefectures (and presumably elsewhere with large monkey populations) often cover their fruit and vegetable gardens with nets to keep the raiders out. Some have found more success than others, and I've been told of whole plots being cleared in a day—devastating for a family trying to grow all their own food!
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I find monkeys very often in what's known as Snow Country, an area containing portions of Gunma, Niigata, and Nagano Prefectures. If you have or rent a car, take a ride up the mountains off the main highways and away from major towns. You may find a group of monkeys! Some good areas to check are: Sarugakyo (literally "Monkey Capital"), Minakami, and the outskirts of Kusatsu in Gunma, and Yuzawa, Naeba, and Shiozawa in Niigata. Come visit and look for monkeys!
While you're here you can also visit any one of the countless onsen hot springs and take any of the hundreds of kilometers of hiking trails through the mountains.

Cameron Hilker