Thursday, December 9, 2010

Monkey Parking

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.
Shrine at the entrance
Japanese pygmy woodpecker

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 BridgeThe 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.
Our first monkey

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
and apples

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. 
In the building, food was for sale and people could stand at the wire covered windows and feed the monkeys. The monkeys knew they would only get food from the building, so they didn’t harass the people outside, but they are opportunists, hence the vigilant wardens. I rather liked the people-in-a-cage, monkeys-in-the-wild idea, but as a biologist, it was a bit depressing to see the monkeys begging. While the kids fed the monkeys cut up apples and bananas, I tried to get a handle on the group hierarchy. There seemed to be about 4 dominant individuals who staked out a spot on the window, depending on how many people inside were feeding. Others would try and make a grab here and there and babies, probably of those of the dominant females, would scurry up and down, hastily getting out of the way if a bigger animal moved in. I threw bits down to the unlucky on the ground, too low in status to get a spot on the window. At one time, two big males had a fight on the roof and one ended up taking over the whole side of the building. All this was ever changing, as animals moved on, dropped to the ground, had their fill, got displaced, etc. After the food (or rather, the parents willingness to pay for the food) ran out, we went back outside. A warden offered to take our picture with the monkeys. She sought out a particular large male and gave him a chestnut. He posed nicely while working to open the tough nut. In addition to the fruit and nuts, the monkeys were also fed grains. Interesting to watch them make choices about where to try and forage; was it worth it to pick up the tiny rice, or, if they hung out by the warden would they get a nut, or could they sneak in and grab a banana piece while the big male's back was turned?

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!

Monkey stink eye
US, monkeys, smoggy Kyoto

major slide
After leaving the feeding area, the trail drops down to another open area with a playground (for people). Of course, the kids couldn’t resist, so we stopped for a while. There was a truly magnificent slide that followed the hill down, a zip line and swings. The bigger kids were ok, but John stuck close to Jane while I took pictures. At one time, a big male approached her and a warden who was on top of the hill came running down and chased it off by throwing a rock. Apparently, that one must be a problem. It didn’t look like anything naughty was up, but it was unnerving how close it had gotten without us noticing. Soon after, we trekked down to see the rest of the sights of Arashiyama.  The kids liked the monkey park so much, though, that we came back another day, so some of the photos above are from the second trip.