Sunday, August 15, 2021

Macaque-ing Friends at Arashiyama Monkey Park

 -- Susan, every other Sunday

Arashiyama, on the western edge of Kyoto, is best-known for its famous bamboo grove and ancient temples. However, the area is also home to a monkey park, where visitors can get an up-close-and-personal view of the dozens of Japanese macaques  (the same species of "snow monkeys" as the ones that bathe in the outdoor hot springs in winter farther north) that roam free in the mountainside park.

I like the monkey park a lot. It combines a number of my favorite things: a lovely hike, great scenery, and animals free to live their best lives. (The fact that humans get shut in a cage is an extra bonus.)

It's much too hot and rainy to go anywhere in Japan for real this week, so let's take a virtual trip to see the monkeys at Arashiyama.... 

The shrine at the base of Mt. Iwata

The entrance to the monkey park is next to Ichitani Munakata Shrine, a little Shintō shrine at the base of a forested mountain near the river. After paying the modest admission fee (about $5 US), visitors follow a paved path up the side of Mt. Iwata. It's a bit of a climb, especially near the entrance, where the "path" is actually a long, long, long flight of broad concrete stairs. There are handrails, and a couple of benches where people can stop and rest, should the need arise.
It takes about 20 minutes (at a steady walking pace) to reach the monkey park itself, which  sits on a plateau about halfway up the mountain. You know you're getting close when you start seeing monkeys in and underneath the trees.


The mountain is the monkeys' natural habitat; they're not caged, and they weren't moved here to create the park. In fact, the park serves an interesting ecological purpose: it actually keeps the monkeys on the mountain. That's actually why it's so high up. In creating a place for visitors to feed the monkeys higher up the mountain, the park encourages the monkeys to remain in their natural habitat (the forest on the mountain) instead of venturing farther down or heading into the suburbs of Kyoto, where they might get hit by cars or need to be put down if they bite a tourist.

Hanging out, enjoying the view.

For the record: the monkey in the picture above was switching off between grooming himself, looking out at the view of Kyoto, and watching the tourists walking around the plateau. We think we're climbing up to see the monkeys, but they spend just as much time watching us.

The monkeys have the best view in Kyoto...

The upper area of the park consists of a small playground with a swing set and a slide (which I've seen used by young humans and macaques alike), a garden with walking paths, and the main attraction: a wide plateau with amazing views of Kyoto and an open visitors' hut with wire fencing over the window areas (see below). A couple of monkey park staff members stand on the plateau, reminding guests to keep a safe distance (about 2 meters) from the monkeys, and not to pet or threaten them, because despite their friendly faces and cute behavior, these monkeys are entirely wild. 

Some of the locals outside the visitor hut.

People who want to feed the monkeys can go into the visitor center and buy a variety of monkey-friendly foods. The choices include peanuts in the shell, fresh banana slices, and cubes of apple--all of which are prepared at the hut, several times a day, by the staff. The food is surprisingly inexpensive (the park doesn't sell it as a profit-making endeavor), and the experience of hand-feeding monkeys is well worth a few bucks. (The visitor hut also sells photo postcards with images of the monkeys, bottled water for human consumption, and a number of other small souvenirs, like keychains and hand towels.)

Feeding the monkeys - but I'm in the cage.

I buy food for the monkeys on every visit (and usually go back for more when the first bags are gone, because its just so much fun to feed the monkeys). There's always a contingent of hungry (and greedy) simians waiting on the ledge outside the hut, waiting for suckers patsies generous souls to approach the screens with food in hand. Most of the time, the monkeys don't fight with one another--but when they see you coming with the treats, they'll stick their hands through the wire and look at you with an adoring, pleading look guaranteed to melt the hardest heart. (Note to the wise: this is just the first of the well-honed techniques they'll use to separate you from your peanuts and bananas.) 

Technique #2: use the children.

The picture above may look like a baby monkey waiting for a treat--and at first glance, that's true. However, the monkey you need to be paying attention to here is the baby's mother, who's sitting just far enough from her child to make it look like Baby is the one you'll be feeding, with her back carefully turned away. This is a highly practiced ruse. The minute you feed Baby, Mom will whirl around, pull Baby into an embrace, and relieve him of his peanut, which she will eat as fast as possible, so she can strip the next peanut you give her son (in an attempt to ensure he gets one) also. Eventually I did get ahead of her, and Baby got his peanut--but I think Mom stole half a dozen before that happened.

Technique #3 Stealth Peanut

The monkey above, while not a baby, is one of the younger, smaller macaques--who often get mugged by the older monkeys, and lose their snacks. Don't underestimate the young guns, though. This little guy had perfected an impressive routine. When older, larger monkeys were around, he sat with his back to the wire, empty hands clearly visible, and made no effort to get a treat. When the larger monkeys left or moved away, he whirled around, reached his arm through the wire toward the closest visitor, and snatched whatever he was offered back through the wire, where he shoved it into his mouth to conceal it. Only after making sure no larger monkey saw him did he pull the treat back out and eat it. Smart little ninja.

Technique #4: Safety in Numbers

A few of the monkeys teamed up in pairs--usually an adult and an adolescent or young adult, most likely parent and older child--because the large, lone monkeys wouldn't try to steal snacks when outnumbered. These teams had their routine down cold--they actually took turns reaching their hands through the wire. It was pretty impressive teamwork. 

Feeding time outside

A few times a day, the keepers feed the monkeys a special "monkey chow"--nutritionally balanced kibbles--on the plateau outside the hut. This ensures that all the monkeys that come to the hut are fed, encourages them to stay on the mountain, and gives the keepers a chance to talk to the visitors (in Japanese and English) about the monkeys and their habitat. Not all of the monkeys that live on the mountain come to the hut--many of them remain in the forest, or come to the upper limits of the park to look at the hut and what's going on around it, but don't approach. Many more do come to the hut, especially once they realize there's easy food to be had, but since visitors aren't allowed to touch or get close to the monkeys (except for handing them food from inside the hut) there haven't been many dangerous or harmful encounters between humans and monkeys. The monkeys don't approach people outside the hut, because they've learned the only place they get fed by visitors is through the wire, and the keepers use specific buckets to carry the kibble out at feeding time, which the monkeys also learn to recognize.

Peanuts are serious business

I like the monkey park. It's a great example of people making an effort to promote conservation in a thoughtful manner that takes both the animals and the human visitors into account. People care more about wildlife when they have the chance to experience and encounter it up close--but in Arashiyama, it's the people, not the monkeys, that get caged. Signs around the park, printed in Japanese and English, have quizzes and interesting facts about the macaques, and visitors get some exercise into the bargain. What's not to love? 

Another view from the monkey park

The only real negative is that the park is not accessible for people who can't make the climb; there are no wheelchair lifts or elevators to the plateau. It's "only" about a fifteen minute walk, but it is uphill, and while I've seen a lot of people in all age groups, from little kids to seniors, on the path, it's quite a long way for people in poor health, which is unfortunate (but apparently necessary, because given the geography of the mountain, there's just not an easy way--and possibly no way at all--to install accessibility devices or ramps). Fortunately, there are accessible places to see the monkeys in other parts of Japan.

If you can make the hike, I recommend the experience highly--and make sure you go on a day when the sky is relatively clear. You don't want to miss the lovely views.

Would you go to the Monkey Park? Or is this a "not my circus, definitely not my monkeys" proposition for you?


  1. I love it! Another one for my list of places to go when I finally get to Japan (twice postponed the trip).

  2. Monkeys are certainly very sly beasts! You're correct in that we are the ones on display in their world.

  3. I'm a sucker for monkeys. Or, I'm a monkey for suckers. I get confused so easily... Cue Jeff...

  4. I think it would be worth the hike up the mountain, lugging EvKa on my back, just to see how the monkeys would react to him.