Have you ever had a moment when you are traveling, one which made you stop and really be so thankful for that exact moment? You feel a special connection with whatever surrounds you and it fills you with emotion. Just outside Kyoto, Japan is a place where I had one of those beautiful moments: Arashiyama Monkey Park. If and when I go back to Japan, this will likely be the first thing on my list. Snow monkeys, you complete me.
What is Monkey Park?
It’s one of the greatest places in the world, that’s what. But seriously, this park is inhabited by a troop of about 130 wild Japanese Macaque monkeys (also known as snow monkeys). They live here in their natural habitat, with no fences or walls. The monkeys are being studied by scientific researchers specifically focused on the mother and baby relationships. Visitors can feed snacks of dried fruit to the monkeys from inside a cage—that’s the funny part, the humans are inside the cage, not the monkeys. You can read about new baby monkeys on their website and see the latest baby pictures. Trekking up the mountain is a pleasant, brief hike where you might see deer, birds, cherry blossoms in the spring or colored leaves in autumn. The reward at the top is the most expansive view of Kyoto that you’ll ever see.
The monkeys really don’t seem to care about humans, and certainly aren’t scared off by people visiting. There exists however, a few important rules for visitors to keep in mind:
- Don’t stare at the monkeys in the eyes
- Don’t touch the monkeys
- Don’t feed the monkeys outside the feeding area
Ascending Monkey Mountain
I hadn’t done any research beyond how to find this place, so walking up the mountain I didn’t know what to expect. It was a very cold January afternoon and trees were bare. Progressing up the trail I heard a rustling sound nearby—I froze. What was that? In the distance I saw something moving but it was camouflaged too well to be identified. I wondered if my eyes were playing tricks on me. After all, the cold and the hike are not things that this California girl is accustomed to.
I continued up the trail and it happened again. I stopped. Now I see it—it is definitely a monkey! Now that my eyes adjusted and knew what to look for, holy smokes, I see another monkey! And another, and another. There is even a monkey in the tree just above me! One just stepped in front of me. Not fighting monkeys, screaming monkeys or dangerous monkeys. Just calm and quiet.
There wasn’t a single person around and only the sound of the wind in the trees. I stood frozen, watching the dozens of monkeys and reminding myself not to stare. I wondered why they were all looking south into the distance; following their lead I curiously watched the distance when tiny little specs began flying toward me. What was this fluff blowing into my face? It was too sparse to be snow, maybe it was pollen being blown from the trees. Within a minute the sparse fluff became more intense, and yep, it’s snow! YAY it’s snowing (says the California girl)! On the edge of a mountain and surrounded by monkeys, I was totally entranced by the delicate snow swirling over us. LOVED IT.
Not two minutes up the trail I reached the top of the mountain where this view of Kyoto was waiting for me:
Getting to Monkey Park
From Kyoto Station, take the JR train Sagano Line and exit at the Arashiyama station, very simple. The trip is about 30 minutes. When you get there, instead of hiring a taxi or a rickshaw, head into town by foot. You can easily get around by foot or rent a bicycle near the train station for ¥1000 (about $10). Head toward the river, crossing the Togetsu-kyo and Togetsu-kobashi bridges, turn right at the base of the mountain and in 20 meters you’ll see the stairs that will bring you to Monkey Park Iwatayama. An adult ticket will cost ¥550 adults / ¥250 for children. They are open every day of the year from 9am to 5pm, or 4pm in the winter.
Tips for Visiting Arashiyama
Arashiyama is a district on the outskirts of Kyoto that is filled with gems you should not miss. In addition to the Monkey Park, it is also home to the famous Bamboo Forest, Gio-ji Temple which overlooks a magical moss-covered grotto, Adashino-Nembutsu-ji Temple with 8000 Buddhist statues, and of course the river on which you can go for a serene boat ride. This area is especially beautiful in spring and autumn, though summer sees blooms of thousands of lotus flowers and winter snow makes the scenery particularly picturesque; there really is no wrong time to visit. You could easily see Arashiyama’s best sights in just one day, but check the events calendar because they have festivals which people come from all over the world to see.
Where to Stay in Arashiyama
When I visited, I stayed at the Almont Hotel Kyoto; it is an accommodation that I highly recommend because they are just three blocks from the Kyoto Station so you are very close to transportation, the Tourism Office and a wide array of restaurants. The hotel staff are very helpful, they have a business center with computers and printers, free wifi, the rooms are modern and clean, AND they have hot mineral water pools. Find your perfect accommodation on Agoda.com which has a useful location map and continually proves to have the best hotel rates in Japan.