What better way to celebrate the year of the monkey than by visiting the Iwatayama Monkey Park in Arashiyama, Kyoto? The Japanese Macaques (sometimes known as ‘Snow Monkeys’) are best known for their penchant for bathing in hot springs, but this practice takes place mainly in the north of Japan where the weather is much colder. While you won’t get to enjoy the sight of monkeys enjoying a steamy soak, the Monkey Park at Arashiyama is a delightful place to visit, especially for those travelling with young children.
Arashiyama (Storm Mountain) is about 30 minutes drive away from Kyoto Station (or an hour by public transport, where you can take part of the journey on the charming ‘Randen Train’). Despite being a mere stone’s throw away from the city centre, Arashiyama is a peaceful oasis where you can enjoy the beauty of nature with a mountainous backdrop.
Arriving at Arashiyama station, it’s a short walk to the park but keep your eyes peeled – the entrance is slightly concealed down a narrow lane. After crossing the bridge, take a right and the stairs leading up the mountain towards the park are almost directly there on your left.
Up the steps, you will arrive at the ticketing area, where you can buy tickets from the machines (English language available) or from the desk. Tickets cost 550 yen for adults, 250 yen for those aged 4 – 15, and children under 4 enter for free. Discounts available for groups of 30+, as well as yearly passes for those who visit frequently.
Opening times differ with the seasons – from March until October the park is open from 9:00 – 5:30, and November to February it’s from 9:00 – 4:30. Visitors are asked to leave the mountaintop and start walking down thirty minutes before the park closes.
The park is set on the side of Mount Arashi and as such it’s quite a steep climb to the top. Up the main path, the road forks in two about halfway up. The path to the left is steeper with more steps but is possibly a little quicker than the other route, so a good option if you’re arriving slightly later in the day and want as much time at the top as possible. The usual route, to the right, takes you on a longer path past the children’s play area before reaching the mountain top.
The hike to the top is fairly substantial so take care if you’re not much of a climber. The pathway is a little steep and crumbly in places and while the park is open every day of the year, they do sometimes shut the park in extreme weather conditions (such as lots of rain or snow) because the path is too dangerous to follow. Please note that one of the park rules is to not stop and take photographs of the monkeys on the way up to the mountaintop – most of the monkey’s congregate on the mountaintop anyway, and pausing for photos along the path can cause dangerous congestion, so just wait until you reach the summit.
Japanese Macaques are easily recognizable by their red/dark pink face and posterior, which are even more brightly coloured during mating season. Their fur varies in colour from brownish and yellowish to greyish. There are noticeable differences between the males and females – the males tend to be much bigger, heavier and spend more time on the ground. Females spend more time in trees than the males do and are thought to live longer. Life span varies, with some monkeys reaching more than 30 years of age.
Like many species of monkey, the macaques have a hierarchical grouping structure with an alpha male, as well as higher and lower ranking monkeys for both males and females. During mating season, a female and male will bond together for a period of fewer than three weeks when they will do everything together such as travelling, eating, resting… and other important business. A female will form such a bond with roughly four different males per season.
Babies are usually born from late spring time through until the summer, so if you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of little ones, plan your visit accordingly. However, the young ones stay quite small for several months and so even an off-season visit will give you a good chance of seeing baby monkeys – we visited the Iwatayama Monkey Park in December/January and spotted at least one baby that was still being carried around by its mother.
In animal parks like Iwatayama where the animals run wild, it’s important to observe the rules and regulations to watch out for the safety of both yourself and the animals. At Iwatayama, there are several notices about how to behave to ensure your safety.
Some of the rules are as follows:
- Don’t feed the macaques anything other than designated food products. You can buy food for the monkeys inside the shop at the top of the mountain, and feed the monkeys from inside the hut. It’s too dangerous to feed the monkey’s out in the open – it’s much safer in the hut where the monkey’s put their hands through the bars.
- Don’t make eye contact with the monkeys. Particularly the older males tend to find this threatening and you’re putting yourself in danger with such actions.
- Don’t crouch down near the monkeys. It may seem like the perfect selfie opportunity, but if you crouch down on the ground then it’s much easier for the monkey to attack you if you annoy them. (We saw one thoughtless tourist doing this during our visit and a monkey ran at him in an aggressive manner – these rules are not just for show, they are there for a reason!)
- Don’t point cameras directly in the monkey’s faces, try to touch the monkeys or get too close. This sort of action is provocative and is likely to upset them.
All these regulations may make it seem like the monkeys are pretty dangerous, but if you observe the rules then you have nothing to fear. Don’t be a fool – follow the rules for your own enjoyment and for the safety of the monkeys. If a monkey does get upset and threaten to attack, there are plenty of staff members on hand who are trained to take care of such situations. When we witnessed the tourist crouching down for a monkey selfie, which provoked the monkey to run at him, the closest staff member quickly intervened and chased the monkey away. Don’t be nervous, just be responsible.
The Iwatayama Monkey Park opened in 1958 and has a great number of monkeys for you to observe – ranging between 120 and 170 monkeys or more living in the park at any time. During our recent trip to Kyoto, visiting the park and feeding the monkeys was one of the unexpected highlights of the trip. Aside from the monkeys, the viewing platform is 160 meters above sea level and offers a stunning panoramic view. If you are into nature and animals, you won’t fail to be impressed by the Iwatayama Monkey Park. For more information (in Japanese and English) and detailed directions on how to get to the park, visit the website.
・112 Things to Do in Kyoto, a City of Culture, Tradition, and Breathtaking Beauty, in 2018
・Arashiyama: for monkeys, bamboo and traditional fishing
・Have a pleasant time in Nagano: hot springs, Japanese archery and snow monkeys!