Snow Monkeys – The Good and The Bad.
After our night in Tokyo, myself and Marco were met early the following morning in the hotel foyer by our guide. We loaded our luggage into the vehicle then headed out of Tokyo towards Jigokudani and the Japanese macaques, more commonly known as snow monkeys. This is a location that seems to have become very popular with wildlife photographers and no trip to Japan would be complete without a visit to this place. It is approximately a three and a half hour drive from Tokyo depending on conditions. You have to pass through numerous toll booths on the journey and the geography of the land changes from a flat open landscape dominated by fertile agricultural fields to one dominated by jagged snow capped mountain peaks. Once we had reached the location we parked the car, we then had to walk the final mile or so along the footpath through the trees and the snow up the valley to the monkey park. This final part of the journey takes about 20-30 minutes, it’s not too bad if you are relatively fit although it is icy underfoot. When you have made it up the valley you arrive at the kiosk/visitor centre, you pay the entrance fee and follow the footpath round. A small footbridge takes you across the valley and there in-front of you is the hot pool where the snow monkeys congregate.
Jigokudani – literally means “Hell’s Valley”
We arrived at the hot pool around lunch time. The first thing you can’t fail to notice is how many people are gathered round the pool trying to photograph the monkeys. What looks like mainly Japanese tourists and western photographers jostle for position. We both attached our chosen lenses to our cameras and attempted to find a suitable position to photograph from. To the left of the pool you are positioned about 12 inches above the waters surface. If you are standing you find yourself looking down onto the subject, in most cases this is far from ideal. The best location and the one that seems to be the most popular is down the set of stairs onto the lower level. This viewpoint positions you at a more pleasing eye level with the subject. The sun was shinning along the top ridges of the valley however no sunlight could reach the valley below. I was mainly shooting with my D4 and my 80-400 AFS lens or my 24-70 f2.8 lens, the ISO was up to 3200 at times due to the lack of light. The number of monkeys in the pool during this session was not that high. I’ve seen photographs of fairly large groups of monkeys huddled together, however on this occasion that was not the case. There were only a few solitary individuals in the pool and quite a few monkeys either on the slope next to the pool or down by the stream. We spent the afternoon photographing and it was obvious that time was getting on, as the tourists started to disperse and make their way back down the valley. The monkeys also started to leave and head up the steep slopes of the valley into the trees where they spend the night. Pretty soon we were the only two left so it was also time for us to pack up our gear and head to our accommodation for the night. Luckily for us our accommodation was a traditional lodge adjacent to the monkey park, there was no need to walk all the way back down the valley. This close proximity also allowed us the opportunity to be the first ones there in the morning.
The lodge was traditional Japanese, The only furniture in our room was a low table in the centre which you had to kneel around. This was moved out of the way and mats were put down for sleeping on. There was an electric heater on the ceiling which was needed as it was very cold. The communal dining area consisted of several low tables where the guests would kneel/sit around for meals. The night we stayed the only other guests were a couple from Australia.
The following morning we were indeed the first to arrive, the staff had not opened up yet. An Australian photographer thought he was going to be the first to arrive so was surprised to see us when he reached the kiosk, he thought he may be the first to arrive as there were no footprints in the fresh snow on the way up the valley. A Japanese official stood on the footpath which overlooks the valley and repeatedly blew his whistle, in much the same way a dog owner would to get the dog to return. The snow monkeys recognising the sound of the whistle started to make their way down the valley towards the pool. The official allowed us through, this enabled us to choose the positions around the pool we wanted to photograph from and get ready before the crowds arrived. The early bird catches the worm so they say. We chose to stand on the lower level which would put us eye level with the monkeys. Handfuls of grain were thrown by the officials into the pool, onto the surrounding slope and down by the stream running through the valley. After standing around for a little while the monkeys slowly started to arrive. The officials allowed through the rest of the tourists and photographers who they had held back in order to give the monkeys some space while they had been making their way down towards the pool area. People rushed to try to get a prime spot around the pool, the number of tourists and photographers increased. The monkeys picked the grain from the snow for a while and some after deciding they had eaten enough started to enter the pool. Some sat in the hot water and picked the grain from the bottom of the pool, some splashed around, some groomed each other. A mother with a tiny youngster was popular and lots of people clamoured to try and get a shot. Around the pool on the snow covered slope of the valley the monkeys were picking the grain. It was bitterly cold, I had to take my gloves off on a few occasions to change camera settings and standing still for a long period of time didn’t help matters. The steam rising from the surface of the water made the autofocus hunt on numerous occasions.
We took photos until lunchtime then we had to pack up and leave in order to make our way back to Tokyo, where we would spend the night. Our flight to Hokkaido was booked for the following morning.
I had taken my 18mm wide angle lens and my 16mm fisheye with me on this trip. I had hoped to use them at this location, however there were too many people for this to happen. I ended up with so many images with peoples elbows or lenses in the frame even when shooting with my 24-70mm lens. At times it was quite frustrating, I had a number of images in my head that I would have liked to try to capture, however it was not possible. It would also have been nice to have had snow falling while we were there, alas this didn’t happen.
Prior to my trip I had mixed feelings about this location, however as I said earlier no trip to japan would be complete without visiting this place. I had to see for myself just to see if my own feelings were justified. I had viewed numerous videos on You-Tube regarding the snow monkeys at this location, I was interested to see behind the scene footage to see what was in the background and try to judge the location better. I wasn’t interested in tight cleverly edited nature documentary footage. I fully expected a man made ‘show’ and that is realistically what it is, these monkeys have been conditioned over several generations. The monkeys are wild as they are not caged or chained, however they know the sound of the whistle in the morning means come down food’s ready! The young monkey clinging to his mothers back learns when he hears the sound of the whistle to come down to the pool to be fed, in exactly the same way his mother learned. Throughout the day grain is thrown out for them to keep them fed/occupied. This is nothing more than a show for the tourists. Is this a wildlife experience? Yes the monkeys are cute, as they splash around and interact with one another showing their almost human like qualities. It is quite disheartening watching some of the so called ‘top photographers’ round the pool with blatant disregard for other people and even worse blatant disregard for the monkeys, just to try to get ‘the shot’. Should a photograph taken at this location be allowed entry into the worlds most prestigious wildlife photography competitions? since the monkeys are fed daily and are almost tame to a certain extent, certainly devoid of fear towards humans. Is this really wildlife photography?
Winter in Japan part 3, Hokkaido Japan’s frozen island to follow…
You can view my images from this trip on my website http://www.derekwatt.co.uk
© copyright Derek Watt 2016.