Snow Monkeys, bowing deer and other Japanese animal encounters

When you tell someone you’re going to Japan in the winter, the first thing they’ll ask is if you’re going skiing. Sadly, each time I had to answer with a defeated ‘no.’ Besides the fact that Brett has an injury that’s particularly aggravated by snowsports, we had limited time to spend outside the main cities and chose an even more unique off-the-beaten track experience: seeing snow monkeys bathing in natural onsen (hot springs). I mean… yes, please!

It wouldn’t be a Jamie-planned trip without an incredible animal encounter. And the more research I did about Japan, the more I realised that there were even more opportunities to get up close and personal with exotic creatures. And we did as many as possible.

I’ll preface this post with the following… on top of the three wild animal encounters, we did participate in animal cafes – we just thought this was a unique piece of Japanese culture you’re supposed to experience. Admittedly, I was a completely irresponsible tourist and wish I had done more research into these operations before supporting them. But I wanted to be open and honest to help others grapple with this ethical decision before they go to Japan.

1. Hedgehog Cafe (Harry Hedgehog in Harajuku, Tokyo) – Hedgehogs are increasingly popular pets in Japan, and this pet shop in Harajuku lets perspective owners and tourists alike test out what it would be like to call one your own. For a small fee of $30, you’re issued a pair of prickle-proof gloves, assigned your own hog and forceps to feed it ‘snacks’ (read: mealworms). Yes, I questioned the humanity of this operation, but felt slightly comforted by the fact that these prickly cuties are bred for captivity. We were careful to only pet the ones that seemed receptive to it, but left early feeling they had enough unsought attention.

2. Owl Cafe (Akiba Fukurou, in Akihabara, Tokyo) – This one that I hesitated listing. I genuinely feel like a bad person for supporting an operation that keeps wild animals in captivity like this. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the experience of having an owl on my shoulder, but really wish I had properly done my research into the operation and how it worked. The staff or “owl concierges” were very gentle and conscious of the owl’s needs and moods, creating a very quiet, calm space, instructing guests how to show the owls their hands before attempting to touch them –  but I highly doubt the owls have real space to fly, and well, be owls after their day at work. The owls are raised in this atmosphere as babies so it’s not as though they were plucked from a forest, but still… my advice, be a better person and resist the temptation to visit.

3. Bowing deer in Nara (Nara Deer Park, outside Kyoto)  – About an hour’s train ride from Kyoto, the city of Nara has a population of 1,200 deer! I thought they’d be contained to a park, but they roam the whole town. It’s a mystery why all the deer bow to you when asking for the special deer cookies sold by the bundle throughout the area (and sales go back to protecting the deer!), but we found the ‘park deer’ very polite compared to the more demanding deer who cheekily positioned themselves near the food stalls lining the entrance to the main temple.

4. Mountainous Monkeys (Arashiyama, outside Kyoto) – Just a 15-minute climb above the Arashiyama bamboo forest (a must-see itself!) is a mountaintop monkey park called Iwatayama. It’s home to about 120 macaque monkeys. The best part? Watching Brett’s animal-hesitant (to say the least!) mom feed one a sweet potato!

The monkey park is a short walk from a beautiful bamboo grove, so most people combine these two attractions as a short day-trip from Kyoto.

5. Snow Monkeys in Onsens (Jigokudani Park, near Nagano, a full day trip from Tokyo)– Finally, the BEST Japanese animal experience of all – a national park home to 160 snow monkeys (also macaque). We ventured to this national park by bus tour. Yes, it was long. Yes, parts of the bus tour were unpleasant (most notably when we stopped for a beef – we think – sukiyaki lunch at restaurant seemingly famous for it’s horse meat…?). But it was the best, most hassle-free way to see the park with the limited time we had in the country. All in all, the trip was worth it.

On a snowy track, we wound our way up a mountain, surrounded by snow-covered pine trees. When you reached the official entrance to the monkey park, the first thing you notice is the little guys sledding down the mountain to the Yokoyu River valley on their bellies! Venture a little further in, and others are warming themselves by the natural hot pools. We even saw two take a swim and start grooming each other from a rock in middle of the natural onsen bath! It was an absolutely incredible experience for the animal-obsessed!

See all the monkeys behind us?

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