Bathing apes
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For a scenic dip with rare, furry primates ready to primp for your pictures, head to Jigokudani Onsen. Mary King gets into hot water.

It' a 20-minute walk through forest to reach the 130-year-old ryokan, the Korakukan, which is famed as the place where you can share your idyllic hot spring dip with Japan's snow monkeys. Jigokudani (Hell Valley) Onsen in Nagano Prefecture is probably the only place in the world where you can bathe in a mixed-sex rotenburo with these primates that are an endangered species.

Visit during the colder months, and stroll through the snow-draped pine forest down to the ryokan, which overlooks the River Yokoyu. Gurgling, steam-belching fumaroles dot the landscape-long ago compared with the Buddhist concept of hell-making you feel like you are entering the world of an ukiyo-e winter scene. The morning, around 7:30, when the monkeys come down from the mountains to warm up in the hot spring, is the best time to enjoy your dip here.

"Of course, they also hope that the tourists will feed them too, but you're not advised to give them anything as it encourages them to attack humans," explained Aki Okubo, who had come all the way from Aomori Prefecture to enjoy bathing with the macaque monkeys. "I don't think they have any problems with the monkeys here," he continued, "but I do know that other places around Japan, such as in Izu, have had problems with wild monkeys attacking people. For some reason, in Izu the monkeys particularly like attacking women. I guess that's because they have seen them carrying shopping bags and know there is food inside."

Monkey business
The monkeys that congregate at the Korakukan and nearby Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park have not displayed the same disturbing behavior as their otherwise identical brethren in the Izu Peninsula. However, according to Nagano Prefectural Government, people have been attacked by monkeys in the Shiga Kogen area and therefore visitors are asked to respect the rules and not feed or touch them. It is also not advisable to carry plastic bags or eat in front of the monkeys. Nagano, however, is facing its own set of problems with the creatures. Sadly, due to development in the area, particularly for the 1998 Winter Olympics, monkeys have been forced out of their natural habitat and are venturing into farmers' fields. Outraged at having their produce eaten and damaged, local farmers are reported to have clubbed monkeys to death.

Environmentalists say the number of Japanese macaques, a species unique to this country, is drastically dwindling. The monkey has been included in the International Red Data Book list of endangered species for over ten years now. Other abuses are also reported to be taking place. ALIVE (All Life In a Viable Environment), a Japanese environmental group, claims that the Japanese macaque, or snow monkey as it is affectionately called, is also being used for medical experiments, turned into traditional Chinese medicines or kept in zoos. ALIVE claims that in 1996 alone, some 10,000 snow monkeys were killed throughout Japan, with more than 1000 killed or captured in Nagano alone.

In a campaign launched by ALIVE and the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), reports assert that the Japanese Nerve Science Society has captured wild monkeys in Nagano Prefecture, and particularly the Jigokudani area, to carry out torturous tests in the guise of neuroscience experiments. Nagano Prefectural Government claims to be unaware of such medical tests and is working on a plan for the protection of the area's wildlife, including the black bear. At the Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park and ryokan, locals know of abuses by farmers but were unaware of any "torturous" medical experiments or monkeys being used for Chinese medicine.

Hell or high water

The family of Harue Takefushi, who is 89 years old and the fifth okamisan of Korakukan, once owned the surrounding park area but started leasing it in 1965 for a token JY6000 a year to Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park Ltd, whose main stockholder is the Nagano Dentetsu railway company. "We thought it would work out to be of mutual benefit. The monkeys would be properly cared for and their population controlled while the ryokan would benefit from tourists visiting the park," said Takefushi's daughter, Kikuko.  "The monkeys need to have proper contraception to control their numbers. There are problems, and I don't feel happy about the way things are being handled. The researchers don't have the monkeys' best interests at heart; they're not charmed by the monkeys; they are only interested in their own research."

Some 270 monkeys can be found in the park all year round. I only spent one day there, but it's truly a photographer's paradise. The monkeys, although wild, are used to humans and were not intimidated by the 60 or so camera-wielding visitors who crowded in on them that day as they nursed their young, picked at each other's fleas, gamboled or swam in their very own rotenburo. Harue Takefushi explained to us as she was preparing chimashi (rice cakes) for her ryokan guests how the monkeys first ventured into the hot springs. "This place used to be a tojiba (health retreat). People came when they were sick and would sometimes spend months here. About 30 years ago, a sailor came. He had problems with his legs and spent two months here. Every day as he sat in the rotenburo he would call out to the monkeys and wave them to come and join him, but they never did. Then one day, just after he left, a baby monkey came down and dipped its hand in the water as if checking the temperature, and from that day on the monkeys have enjoyed bathing here like you and me."

How to get there-Nagano Shinkansen "ASAMA" trains link Tokyo with Nagano. The fast service covers the distance in 1 hour 20 mins. Trains leave from Tokyo, Ueno and Omiya JR stations. From Nagano take the Nagano Dentetsu line to Yudanaka stn. The express train takes 42 mins. From Yudanaka stn take a bus to Kambayashi Onsen Guchi. From there, it is about a 20 minute walk to Jigokudani.
Where to stay-Korakukan ryokan, Tel: 0269-33-4376; fax: 0269-33-3244
Tourist information-Tel: 0269-23-5581


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