There are many legitimate reasons to visit Arashiyama located in Western Kyoto, but I won’t pretend we came for any reason but one: the Iwatayama Monkey Park. If you read our post on Nara and witnessed my glee at feeding deer, then you can only imagine my excitement at the prospect of getting to feed monkeys!
Really, little else would entice me to undertake ANOTHER hike.
Lonely Planet’s meager section on Arashiyama does mention the Iwatayama Monkey Park, but fails to mention that there is any rigorous exercise required in order to reach the primate play area. A quick perusal on WikiTravel did mention the strenuous hike, so I was mentally prepared for the trek, but I still grumbled most of the way up. It wasn’t anywhere near as arduous as our walk down Mt. Mizen on Miyajima, nor was it so humid (honestly, the weather has been lovely in Kyoto!), but we did have to haul ourselves upwards rather than down, which did add to the challenge. In case I have not made it abundantly clear, the Japanese really seem to enjoy hiking, and I really really do not as it tends to make me cranky.
So I was regretting having paid 550Y in order to torture myself once more for what I was sure was going to be an underwhelming experience, when we turned a corner (to start yet another ascent) and we saw this:
Seriously, y’all! There was a monkey in the forest, just 20 feet away, not separated from us by any kind of boundary! And then as we stopped to take pictures (which you are told not to do, but we figured this was a pretty rare sighting we were getting, so yes, we broke the rules!), monkeys began to come out of the woodwork. One walked not 8 feet in front of me across the path, and another clambered up over the cliff we had just turned, and hunkered down.
At this point, two men came by on scooters and we assumed that these 3 monkeys had escaped from the facility we were climbing to reach and these men were there to retrieve them. We thought this, because in America, this is obviously how things would work.
Not so at Iwatayama Monkey Park! As we finally made our way to the top of the trail to the feeding & rest area, we found ourselves surrounded by free roaming monkeys. They are not contained or confined in any way, and are free to do as they please. Instead, it is humans who are caged up when they visit, as the only way you are allowed to feed the monkeys is from inside the resthouse through the screened in enclosure.
Of course, if you are not feeding them, you are allowed to mingle with the monkeys (who are Japanese macaques) out in the open. While you are not allowed to touch the monkeys, they are clearly used to humans and many times, monkeys would come within mere inches of us, which was such a thrill!
We arrived at the feeding area right at lunch time for the monkeys. Their handlers put on a jaunty little tune (which must signal feeding time), and all of a sudden, it was a monkey stampede! Tony happily caught it all on video:
As you can see, monkeys are everywhere! Apparently there are 140 monkeys in residence in the park, each with a unique name. We were particularly lucky on our visit because apparently birthing season is in April & May, so there were several baby monkeys running around (or clinging to their mamas) as well!
It was hard to tear ourselves away from the close interactions with the monkeys outside, but I really wanted to feed them, so we headed inside and purchased some banana slices (which Tony was half tempted to eat himself) and peanuts. And then, we held these items out, palm open, and had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of feeling grabby little monkey hands close around the food and yank it outside for a quick feast.
Some of the monkeys were quite greedy and had scratchy little nails, but other ones were far more gentle when taking the food. We had to fight to get food to the babies (often their mothers would snatch the food out of their hands and gobble it down), but we did manage to sneak them some treats by the end!
We spent around 2 hours at Iwatayama and I could have happily spent the entire day there. The monkeys were fascinating to watch, and it was just SO COOL to get that up close and personal with them. Also, I know that many animal oriented attractions in Asia can be depressing or involve animal mistreatment, but Iwatayama is clearly a peaceful place for the monkeys where they live unencumbered and happy lives. They come and go as they please and are not forced to do tricks or behave in any unnatural ways. Before we made it to the top, we grumbled about why the monkey park had to be so high up, but once you make it up there (160m above sea level), not only is the view over Kyoto lovely, but the space is so beautiful that you immediately understand the hike. I am SO HAPPY that we decided to visit, so much so that I would eagerly do the hike again knowing what comes as a result!
It was hard to leave, but most of the macaques had drifted off into a food coma following lunch, so we slowly made our way back down. Along the way, we made friends with Hirano & Misaki, who offered to take our picture with two monkeys who were engaging in mutual grooming. The result is Tony’s favorite picture of all-time:
As we were posing, he heard a little rattling and turned to find the two monkeys studiously attempting to steal our water bottle! He scolded them and they looked aghast (really!) and then moved away and we tried for a second photo…. It’s the only time in Japan we have ever had to worry about pickpockets, and was such a delightfully surreal way to end our time at the park.
With so many things to see and do in Kyoto, it might be hard to make time to head west to Arashiyama, but for us, our visit to the Iwatayama Monkey Park alone made the trip worthwhile and is one of our biggest trip highlights to date. Well worth the time, money, and even the hike!