Now, anyone who knows me is certainly aware of my affinity for all things simian. Everything is better when you add monkeys, right? So imagine my surprise and delight when, upon exiting the train at Arashiyama station just outside Kyoto, I spot a large, colorful advertisement for the “Arashiyama Monkey Park”, adorned with cartoon drawings of various cherubic monkeys obviously enjoying themselves and beckoning me to join them. The ensuing conversation with my wife went something like this:
“Where should we go for lunch? How about that zaru-soba place?”
“We’ll see that if we have time after the other stuff. Should we go to the shrine first?”
[Various threats and admonishments in Japanese]
Actually, we did do a bunch of other stuff in Arashiyama first, such as having lunch at Arashiyama Yoshimura, a really good soba place with long lines and a great view of the river, and a ride on the “romantic train”, advertised as some sort of old style locomotive that would take us on a scenic tour of the mountainside. We debated whether the proper onomatopoeia for a steam locomotive is the English “choo choo” (of course), or the Japanese “shushu popo shushu popo” (which cracks me up whenever I hear it); however we both lost the argument when it turned out the train was powered by a noisy diesel engine rather than steam. Still, it was a nice (if brief) ride and we got to wave at the river rafters way down below.
By mid-afternoon I’d managed to secure the Monkey Park’s place on our itinerary, and we followed the vague directions on a small sign in town to the park’s entrance. This took us to a tiny kiosk next to a small, shady shrine by the river. We bought two tickets at the vending machine for ¥520 each and handed them to the woman in the kiosk, who gave us two small fans with monkey pictures on them and bid us in the direction of a trail heading up the hill. What followed was probably a half-hour hike up a fairly steep incline, punctuated by teaser signs explaining the origin of the nihon-zaru (Japanese macaque) and admonishing visitors not to show them any food or stare at them in the eyes. But there were no monkeys in sight to be fed or stared at, only a seemingly endless path up the mountain.
Just as I was starting to think that our 1040 yen had been lost to some kind of tourist trap ploy, we reached a clearing at the top of the trail and I spotted two furry creatures sitting in the grass next to a swing set. I approached quietly and verified that yes, indeed, there were in fact two Japanese monkeys sitting right in front of me, not three yards away and with no nasty fences or cages to get in the way!
I looked around a bit more and realized that we were, in fact, surrounded by monkeys. They peered at us from the trees, from a ridge further up the hill, even from atop a slide running down to where we stood. As we carefully proceeded up the trail towards a larger clearing I tried taking photos while avoiding eye contact with the monkeys; when I failed to do so in one case and got a bit too close, I was indeed rebuked in a fit of lunging and teeth baring. But for the most part the monkeys barely acknowledged our existence, as I suppose one should expect of monkeys living in a place where admission tickets are sold to dumbass humans just to hike up and gawk at them.
Our monkey interaction took a considerable upturn as we approached the large clearing on top of the hill, where we were beckoned inside a small building by the monkey park staff. Inside there was a refreshing cooler, a place to sit, and a woman selling snacks. She sold human snacks like beer and chips, but more importantly she also sold monkey snacks—baggies of peanuts and chopped eggplant for ¥100. The monkeys were climbing all over the outside of the building, looking in through the panoramic grated windows. I suddenly became a subject of great monkey interest upon buying a bag of peanuts. Following the directions on the signs, I took a peanut from the bag, kept the rest of the bag out of sight, and held the peanut near one of the windows. Instantly, one of the monkeys came over, snatched it, stuffed it into his mouth, and shot his hand right back out towards mine, evidently waiting for the next one and what the hell was taking so long anyway huh?
I spent the next few minutes gleefully distributing my bag of peanuts in the most equitable way I could, although I must admit that I may have tended to favor the little monkeys. This was both because of the inherent appeal of little baby monkeys, as well as in compensation for the fact that the big monkeys tended to use the little ones as bait. Either the big monkey would just rip the peanut out of the little monkey’s hands before he could get it into his mouth, or a big monkey would wait out of sight for me to feed a little monkey, and then bound up to the same spot, knocking the little guy out of the way and poised to receive the next offering.
I went through two or three bags of peanuts in this way, entranced by the monkeys’ jockeying and antics. We then headed back outside; it was coming close to sunset, and even more monkeys, especially babies, were outside in the cooler air grooming one another. After trying and failing to get a good shot of a monkey next to my wife, one of the staff offered to hold the camera, at which point the nearest monkey instantly stopped, faced the camera, and I could have sworn said “cheese”. After taking the picture, the staff guy gave the monkey a treat and explained to us that all the monkeys know that they’ll get a reward if they pose for a picture when one of the staff is holding a camera. Brilliant!
Unfortunately, the setting sun indicated that it was time for us to go home, so I took one last circle around the top of the hill and grudgingly headed back down the trail. I shall return, monkey park monkeys!
Verdict on the Arashiyama Monkey Park: Outstanding! Once I knew what waited up top, I wouldn’t have thought twice about paying double or triple to enter (it’s less than $5 US). Also, the snack booth at the top admirably foregoes a tempting opportunity to gouge visitors on the monkey peanuts. Now, keep in mind that I really like monkeys, but even my wife seemed to think it was an enjoyable experience, and she couldn’t care less. The park has a website and even a blog (both in Japanese). Reading the blog makes me feel like there are real people running the park who genuinely care about it being a nice place, not just a tourist stop. My only reservation about recommending it to first-timers is to be aware that the hike up to the top is a bit more than a casual stroll—bring some water if it’s hot out.
The easiest way to get there is to take the Hankyu railway to Hankyu Arashiyama station from Kyoto, and then walk toward the big Togetsubashi Bridge (IIRC, you exit the station and go straight along a road, go through a small park, cross a bridge, and you’ll come up on another park alongside the big river with the Togetsubashi Bridge nearby). If you walk up to the nearest side of the Togetsubashi Bridge, cross the street, and head down the road that goes along the river away from the bridge, in a hundred yards or so you will come to a set of stairs on the left that leads up to the entrance kiosk. There are several monkey signs around the bridge area with arrows leading you in the right direction.