When we first told the children that we would be moving to Japan for a few months, we asked them what special things they would like to do there. Will hoped to ride on a bullet train, while Jane just wanted to play.
“Can we go see snow monkeys?” Katy asked hopefully.
“Great idea, of course!” I answered with no clue of how I would pull that off. My children are still young enough to think that I am capable of anything, an illusion I’d like to keep intact as long as possible. This was going to take some work.
We had seen footage of snow monkeys in National Geographic and BBC nature videos. Japan is a small country, how hard could it be? A Google search came up with numerous hits, and I even found a webcam at the sight were most of the nature videos had been shot. I also heard about a monkey park near Kyoto that a friend had visited and recommended. Travel in Japan is quite expensive (actually it only seems that way, about the same as the US, but since our budget is very small, it feels expensive). We thought we could manage one trip out of Hamamatsu, but that was about it. Luckily, John was invited to work in Kyoto for a few weeks, and we all were able to come.
When we arrived in Kyoto, I went immediately to the Tourist Information Office in the train station and spoke to a nice older man. He provide me with a bus map, and some tourist guides and when pressed, a route to Arashiyama, the town at the edge of Kyoto where the Monkey park was located. The route he gave us used the train Station as a starting point, but our apartment was located near Kyoto University.
After a few days of navigating the bus system, I figured out the bus to Arashiyama went right by our apartment, a straight shot across the entire city of 1.5 million people.
After a 40-minute bus ride with most of Kyoto getting on and off our bus, we arrived and walked along the river to the Togetsukyō Bridge. The river has different names on either side of the bridge, perhaps just to confuse tourists. Ok, not really, but names are very precise here. We crossed the river with the throngs of Japanese tourists, dodging rickshaw touts and begging priests and trying to stay out of other people’s photos. The entrance to the Iwatayama Monkey Park was a short way down the river, near a small shrine. The kids were so excited; they raced up the 20-bazillion steps that led up the mountain. Well, two of them raced; one needing convincing. If you have ever traveled with a three year old, half the time is chasing her, the other half cajoling (then you break down and carry her.)
As we climbed, the sun filtered down lazily through the cedars, and we watched a Japanese pygmy woodpecker make its way up a tree. There were educational signs along the trail, some in English. The rules about not feeding the monkeys were very clear. We went up many more switchbacks and then, there they were.
We came out on a small clearing, a flat space on a ridge, with a small building. Monkeys were everywhere. Scratching, climbing, ignoring the people walking amongst them. You could see all the way across the city, even through the haze. People admired the view, took photos, all under the supervision of four or five alert park wardens. Every few minutes, one of them would take out a notebook and jot something down. They seemed to be making careful notes about behavior, and a sign said that all the 130 monkeys are named and known well.
|The girls feeding monkeys peanuts|
|Looking down from above the feeding|
|Sitting in a prime spot, making sure no|
others get close while waiting for
the humans to offer food.
|Picking up pieces of rice|
|Low status monkey, keeping an eye|
open for an opportunity
As we walked around a bit, we saw juveniles playing, babies nursing, and many grooming pairs. Some taking naps in trees. Nothing seemed to last long and if you followed one monkey, it might sit for a minute, then go over and harass another, start grooming a third, then go off in the bushes for a while. It would take a lot of observation time to put names and behaviors on all of them!