In the couple of times I’ve visited Japan, it always struck me how Japanese people strive to coexist harmoniously with wild animals, from deer to the Japanese macaque monkeys, these animals have come to trust and even depend on humans for their survival. I’m not a wildlife expert so I can’t say for sure if this relationship is good or harmful for the animals, but the effort Japanese people have put into co-habiting the same space with these animals and provide them with food to help them survive in the harshest of months is an act of compassion, and I can’t be too critical of that.
Jigokudani Monkey Park was established by 1964, led by the efforts of a man named Sogo Hara, a railway employee and avid hiker who loved the monkeys of that area. At that time, the native habits of the monkeys were being destroyed by the development of ski resorts, so the monkeys started moving down the mountain near the villages. The monkeys began raiding the farmers crops and more unconventionally, they started to encroach on the hot springs made by the guesthouses in the area. To pacify the relationship between villagers and the monkeys, the monkey park was built with hot spring baths. This troop of macaque monkeys are the only known monkey troop in the world to enjoy bathing in hot springs.
The hike to the monkey park winds through a quiet pine forest. Once we drew closer to the park, we started to spot monkeys down by a river that was fed by the hot springs. In the park itself, monkeys were running amok, seemingly oblivious to the presence of humans as they went about their monkey business: grooming and socializing, baby monkeys nursing on their mothers or riding on their backs. Soon, a park worker began feeding the monkeys with barley and soy beans, a practice that helps keep the monkeys from raiding the nearby farms and villages. Unfortunately for us, the weather was so mild when we went none of the monkeys seemed tempted to go in the hot springs so we weren’t able to witness their expressions of pure bliss and contentment as they soaked in their bath, an expression so human it seems to make us kin.