Did you know that there is a place in Japan which is inhabited not by humans but by monkeys? Yes, monkeys. In plural form. Not just two, not just three but more than a thousand of monkeys.
Takasakiyama Shizen Doubutsuen 高崎山自然動物園(Takasakiyama Natural Zoological Garden) is located in Takasakiyama (Mount Takasaki), a 628-meter high mountain near the bay of Beppu, which lies in between the boundary of Beppu City and the western side of Oita City in Kyushu.
There is a bridge called “Sankakubashi” (Triangle Bridge) that goes to-and-fro Takasakiyama and Umi-Tamago, the aquarium situated just across Takasakiyama. If you see this bridge, you will know that you are already near the location.
There are about 1,500 “Nihon saru” (Japanese macaques) that can be seen in the area. You have to remember that this place is not a man-made zoo for this primates but it is their natural habitat. A long time ago, these “residents of Takasakiyama” were considered a burden by the nearby villagers because they used to attack the farmers’ crop. The farmers were infuriated so much that they wanted to exterminate the monkeys. The mayor during that time (1952), Mayor Tamotsu Ueda, got a brilliant idea and started feeding the monkeys not only to prevent them from destroying the crops but also turn the area into an income-generating tourist spot. In May, 1936 the Ministry of Environment recognized Takasakiyama as a National Park.
In Takasakiyama, you can observe the human-like behaviour of the monkeys up-close in their natural habitat. How they laugh when they play, how they get angry when they quarrel, how they sound, how a mother monkey takes care of her baby monkeys and more. The most interesting scene, however, is when it is time to feed the monkeys. On a scheduled feeding time, the feeder taps the food container and upon hearing this sound, the monkeys come from all over – jumping from a tree, running from all corners to gather in the feeding area in a speed as fast as a bullet train. The feeder then runs the cart across pouring the food on the ground while a large troop of hungry and salivating monkeys follow after. It was such an amazing and spectacular sight. Although I felt a little bit scared for a moment with what seemed a turmoil, a tornado or tsunami that happened in a blink of an eye and gone without living a trace of destruction to the area. What was left was peace, full tummies, and each monkey returned to their own sacred havens, back to normal, as if nothing has occurred.
There are five rules to follow to make the best of your experience and for your own safety when visiting Takasakiyama.
- Don’t touch the monkeys. (Or else they might touch you back, with their teeth, leaving a trace of blood on your skin.)
- Don’t make an eye contact with the monkeys. (Not if you want to do a monkey-marriage-proposal.)
- Don’t get too close and don’t be too noisy. (They might get in a defensive mode, thinking you’re a predator – a big noisy mammal.)
- Don’t tease the monkeys. (Or you’ll end up being a piece of joke.)
- Don’t feed the monkeys or show them your food. (You might aggravate them for not feeding all 1,500 of them that much and end up becoming their food.)
Remember, these are wild animals in their natural habitat. Pay respect!
You can get there by JR buses from either Beppu or Oita. It will take about fifteen minutes from Beppu Station, and about twenty-five minutes from Oita Station. (When we had our field trip there in 2013, the price was ¥2,200 yen from Beppu Station back and forth and free entrance to both Takasakiyama and UmiTamago.)
To get to the observation area, you can either walk uphill (about a 5-minute walk) if you have the energy, or you can take a monorail which costs a hundred yen and you will be able to see the view from above. (I used the monorail because I think it was not only cool, but also very convenient.)