Snow monkeys are a popular tourist draw for Nagano, Japan. The animals come here for the local hot springs, particularly in inclement, winter weather.

The Christmas holiday is over—just barely. Feeling a little exhausted after all the preparations, family gatherings and parties? Then, a nice soak in a hot spring should be just the ticket for you.

Of course, I can’t physically take you all to a spot with some natural, thermal waters. But what I can do is take you there virtually, with the hope that you’ll “soak in” some of that aah feeling by watching other bathers.

Just one note: these bathers aren’t the typical ones. They are wild, Japanese macaques—otherwise known as snow monkeys.


Japanese macaques are the only native monkey species in the country. They live in the mountains surrounding Nagano, Japan. From December to about March, however, they go into “Hell Valley” seeking warmth in the bubbling and steaming hot springs.

In the winter, Japanese macaques, the most northern species of monkey, come down out of the mountains of Nagano, Japan, seeking warmth. They gather at a location called jigokudani, or “Hell Valley,” because of its sulfurous, steaming and bubbling hot springs.

The nearby town is known for its onsen, or hot baths, which primates of the human sort also tend to enjoy. So, to avoid monkey-people conflicts and scaring off those who actually paid to use the baths, a “monkeys-only pool” was created. And when the monkeys come to visit their special spa, so do photographers.

Watch the video below, produced by CBS Sunday Morning, in 2016, the Year of the Monkey on the lunar calendar. Scientists say macaques are extremely intelligent, able to adapt new behaviors to fit various situations and then pass those behaviors down to later generations. In fact, in one study, researchers studying this species on Japan’s Koshima Island left sweet potatoes out on the beach for them to eat. One female macaque, named Imo (Japanese for yam or potato), was seen washing the food with river water rather than brushing it off as the others were doing. She later dipped her clean food into salty seawater.


The contented and relaxed expressions on the faces of the bathing Japanese macaques—the most northern of monkey species—tell a story that photographers love to document.

After a while, other macaques started to copy her behavior. This trait was then passed down from generation to generation, until eventually all the macaques except for the oldest members of the troop were washing their food and even seasoning it in the sea. Similarly, Imo was the first monkey observed to ball up wheat with air pockets, throw it into the water and wait for it to float back up before picking it up and eating it free from soil.

Although, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Japanese macaque is widespread and found in many protected areas, there are some local populations under threat due to loss of their natural habitats; mostly through human activities, such as agriculture, deforestation and killing by farmers who view them as pests.

Upcoming year 2018 will be the Year of the Dog—not a wild or bath-seeking animal. If the relaxed expressions on these monkeys’ faces are to be believed, however, our best friends don’t know what they’re missing.


The macaques of Jigokudani are the only troop known to have discovered the pleasures of a hot spring without any human encouragement. It started back in the 1960s, when a solitary female was spotted having a relaxing soak. Eventually, as more and more macaques began to join her, a pool was dug just for them.

I hope that watching a few moments of the Japanese macaques’ decompressed and relaxed state will help you find the same.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,