Monkeying Around in Arashiyama

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:

Howdy! How's things?
Howdy! How’s things?

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.

You're gonna make it after all! If she had a beret, she would have tossed it into the air... only to be stolen by a monkey
You’re gonna make it after all! If she had a beret, she would have tossed it into the air… only to be stolen by a monkey

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.

Easy there, Mr. Grabby

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!

Mother and baby

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!

Monkeys everywhere

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!

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11 comments Leave a comment

  1. Fyi guys, the pics look wonderful on your blog but are showing up as broken links in my Google Reader.

    Ok, I was with you on the deer park, but monkeys (as distinct from the great apes) freak me out! I think I’ve read a few too many nature books, lol. And when I was a kid visiting relatives we went to one of those drive-through wildlife parks & the baboons attacked our car. 😮 But I’m glad y’all enjoyed it and that pic of you w the monkeys is super cute.

    Also, I suspect from what I’ve read about India that you’ll have the chance to see wild monkeys again…possibly too close for comfort. 😉

    Oct. 18 2012 @ 9:47 am
    1. Eva author

      Thank you for letting us know about the Google Reader issue! We are trying to figure out a way to selectively allow hotlinking, but obviously have not nailed down the correct formula just yet!

      I admit, I was a little bit nervous about the monkeys at first too because I know they can be very aggressive and vicious, but it didn’t take long to realize that these monkeys could not care less about people (unless you have food!). There were very specific rules to follow, such as not showing them food outside the feeding area, and not touching them, and we fastidiously followed those rules. I was charmed by the monkeys, but I certainly wasn’t going to be foolhardy and try to cuddle one or anything like that!

      Oct. 20 2012 @ 7:52 am
  2. This is one of my favourite posts from you guys! I absolutely love monkeys, one of things I really want to do on our trip is find an ethical way to volunteer with them. There’s a sanctuary called Monkey World in Dorset (England) for monkeys who’ve been abused or kept as pets; I can spend hours watching all the animals there, they’re so fascinating. The Iwatayama monkey park looks great too; amazing pics and video – I love your face in the second video after the monkey has taken your treat Steph! It perfectly illustrates how wondrous the experience was!

    Oct. 19 2012 @ 6:20 am
    1. Amy author

      How cool! I did not realize that England had any kind of monkey park, but so nice to hear there is a sanctuary for them there. I hope you are able to find a place to volunteer with the monkeys when you travel… Just be aware that for every great monkey park in Asia, you will likely see at least one other instance where monkeys are being mistreated. It’s a tough balance here, that’s for sure. But all the more reason to patronize and support the places that get it right!

      Oct. 20 2012 @ 7:54 am
  3. Monkeys are found in India in abundance! And they are naughty too, they love spectacles, cameras, mobile phones!!! These are cute pics, especially that you surrounded by half a dozen of them. Loving the Japan series 🙂

    Oct. 20 2012 @ 11:27 pm
    1. Arti author

      Oh, I have heard all about India’s (and Thailand’s) naughty monkeys… thankfully these ones were only interested in stealing water bottles, not pricy electronics! But we’ll be sure to be on our guard should we encounter any in the wild!

      Oct. 21 2012 @ 6:34 pm
  4. The monkey park looks absolutely awesome! We didn’t make it over there as our couchsurfing host was our guide for the day we were in that area and he didn’t take us over to the park — I’m guessing the hike must have been too intense for him since he was 71 so he instead took us on another hike where we got a vantage point of the river which was nice as well but nowehre near as exciting as the monkey park ! awesome pics too!

    Oct. 21 2012 @ 7:18 am
    1. Vicky author

      It was one of our highlights when we visited Kyoto, so it’s a shame you guys didn’t get to visit it! Ah well, always next time, right?

      Oct. 21 2012 @ 6:34 pm

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