I have a confession to make- up until last month, I really wasn’t much of a macaque person. I can’t put my finger on why exactly- but clearly I was missing something as photos of Japanese macaques almost invariably feature in Wildlife Photographer of the Year portfolios. This species, the most northerly of all primates, is the one that’s famous for bathing in hot pools when their mountain habitat is covered with snow- and though we clearly weren’t going to see much snow in October, I still wanted to see if I could experience what all the fuss was about. There are places to see monkeys all over Honshu, but our closest sure-fire way of seeing them was to visit Iwatayama monkey park in Arashiyama, Kyoto.
After a fairly steep half hour climb, we reached the top of the hill to where the monkeys were dozing in the shade. I was glad to see that there were at least three staff members whose job was to make sure visitors weren’t breaking the park’s rules of getting too close, crouching down, or looking the monkeys in the eye (which they interpret as a challenge). I’m happy to say, I get it now. While the monkeys completely ignored us, wondering in and out of the surrounding forest, we watched them playing, grooming and having spats. It was easy to recognise different ones though they were all united by their gloriously fluffy fur and their expressive eyes. We watched their friendships, disagreements and politics, which were in parts tense, captivating and endearing, and just so human.
Eventually however, the lure of green tea ice creams at the bottom of the hill became too great. We took in the view over Arashiyama one last time, before plunging into the relatively hectic town to visit some temples and the famous bamboo grove. But part of me was still with the monkeys, wondering what they were doing- and hoping that one day, I get to go back.
PLANNING A VISIT?
- Iwatayama monkey park is a 10 minute walk from Arashiyama train station- we had no trouble finding it with google maps and pocket wifi, just cross the main bridge and follow the signs.
- The entrance fee is Y500.
- Please, if you go, stick to the rules. One of the reasons that we enjoyed the park so much was that the monkeys ignored us and went about their business with other monkeys. Sadly, when it got busier at around lunchtime, we saw some tourists crouching to get photos and looking at the monkeys straight in the eye- a sure fire way to ruin the experience for everyone else. Be patient, you’ll get to see cooler stuff if you manage to melt into the background.