Jul 1, 2020 | By: Japan Dreamscapes Photography Tours
The Japanese macaque is a terrestrial Old World monkey species that is native to Japan. They have become known as the snow monkey due to them being the most northern living nonhuman primate on Earth, well possibly except for the Abominable Snowman (haha); I have yet to photography this cryptid, and I am not trying, but the snowman has even been reported in Hokkaido Japan, and if he ever pops his head out during my annual Hokkaido Photo Tour, I will definitely take a snapshot or two and then share with everyone!
The Japanese macaque can be found on Japan's main island except for Hokkaido and the Southern Islands chain, and some smaller islands around Japan.Jigokudani Yaenkoen was established in 1964 in the Jigokudani valley in Yamanouchi, at first, the hot springs pool were built for human use, but the monkeys took it over, and it soon became a local Japanese tourist hit and now a worldwide hit.What most don't' know is that over 200 monkeys live in the region, in 3 separate large troops numbering about 50 monkeys per troop, and there are also several smaller troops. Only the strongest troop lay claim to the hot springs; it’s the prime real estate in the region!And every few years, a different troop will claim the hot springs, in an epic bloody battle that usually takes place in the spring or early summer after the females have given birth when there is plenty of nourishment, and all in the troop are at full-strength for the coming campaign.Even during winter, when food is scarce, there are small marauding groups from different troop factions; they try to mate with females or take food, but there are sentries posted, and you sometimes can hear monkeys scream at non-troop members, and sometimes you can see the odd winter skirmish.
While filming them years back with and for associates of the BBC, the park was closed for several days due to the bloody battle raging between fractionated snow monkey troops. The most recent full-on campaign I witnessed was in 2017. It was sad and bloody, and the park was closed for several days as the park staff was worried about people's safety. In truth, the park can never guarantee your safety; these are wild monkeys, even knowing they are somewhat used to people. In 2017 I was in the park several times, and on one visit, I was with clients Gary Kohn and his wife, Niki, now close friends. I clearly remember pointing out to Gary, a monkey who was licking his hand and severed finger, then Gary saw the finger had recently been bitten off, "ouch." Garry wrote an article about this trip in Women Around Town, a New York Press Club Award-Winning online magazine. Gary did not publish his monkey photo with the severed fingers, and neither have I till now.Also, what I did not tell Gary at that time or almost anyone is I have film and stills of battles raging between monkey factions.
In one video, I have a monkey bitting off the fingers of his adversary; in the video, you can clearly see two fingers being bitten off and hear bones crunching from the bite and screaming of the monkey in pain.OM MA NI PADME HUM. In my twenty years visiting and photographing in Jigokudani park, I have never seen a nature photographer get into serious trouble with a snow monkey. Still, I have seen some foolish tourists get into trouble. I once saw a tourist locking eye with an adult wild snow monkey, and this tourist looked like he was ready to touch the monkey; he was inches away face to face. I tried to get to the tourist fast and pull him back, but I was too late and the monkey lashed out with claws across the tourist's face!Jigokudani Yaen-Koen has a list of rules and regulations posted on plaques as you enter the park and online. This summer, due to COVID 19, I will not be visiting Jigokudani Yaenkoen snow monkey park. Still, I know I will encounter different monkey troops hundreds of kilometers away from Jigokudani on my upcoming backcountry photography camping expedition.