The Polar Bears of Asahiyama

I am not a fan of Zoo’s. The idea of animals in cages does not appeal to me. The only reason I went to the Asahiyama Zoo was to catch a glimpse of the endangered Polar Bears.

Located in the very north of Japan, Asahiyama Zoo is home to some 700 beautiful creatures. It opened its gates for the very first time in early 1967. Helped by the natural climate, it is the first facility in Japan to have succeeded in the natural breeding in captivity of animals that live in cold regions, such as Polar Bears, Amur Leopards, and Scops Owls. In winter people come here specially to witness the penguin walks.

We reached there half an hour early. The Zoo opens at 9 am. For me the most popular exhibit is the Polar Bear Pavilion. From here, one can observe polar bears diving into this huge pool, displaying their natural playful behavior as in the real Arctic Ocean.

Ivan & Lulu

Four polar bears are bred here. The only male one is named Ivan. The female ones are named Satsuki, Pirka and Lulu. Ivan was brought here from a Russian Zoo where he was born in captivity. Asahiyama zoo was also successful at the difficult task of captive polar bear breeding back in 1976, but has been unlucky after that. Few years back, Ivan was paired with 16-year-old Lulu but it did not pan out as planned.

Polar bears are individual creatures. Wild pairs come together only for a period of about one week a year, and though the males seek a mate every year, the females only breed every 3 years. Ivan and Lulu had been living together for a long time. The caretakers decided to separate them, then reunite them temporarily to see what might happen. It worked. Ivan acted differently, and soon the pair was observed mating, although Lulu still did not become pregnant. He is currently being paired with Pirka.

We walked down to the pavilion where below the water we could see one of them having a great time playing in the water. Mani was lucky to capture in a video its youthful energy as it went about enjoying life.

Nearby there are observation stands called the Shields eye. Through it we can watch the bears from the viewpoint of the seals. Polar bears use their powerful sense of smell when hunting for seals, their main source of food. They can smell a seal’s breathing hole, or aglu, from a mile away. Once located, they wait patiently by the hole and attack the seal’s head when it comes up for air. This acrylic dome is designed to show how they would perceive their predators as they would come up the breathing hole to the surface for air.

Originally from the Arctic, the polar bears are in serious danger of going extinct due to global warming. They evolved around 3 million years ago from the brown grizzly bears in areas where their white fur gave them a tactical advantage. Adult males can grow to as much as nine feet in length and weigh over 300 kg. They can live up to 40 years.

Rising temperatures in the world’s oceans are causing sea ice to disappear for longer and longer periods during summer, leaving them insufficient time to hunt. Because they don’t hibernate like other bears, they can only survive in areas where food is available all around the year. With the ice gone in summers, they are unable to find prey. This gradual loss of critical habitat will probably not allow them to last much longer. It is hard to accept that I will probably never see them again.

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In the morning, the first thing we did was to catch the penguin walk. One mustn’t miss the sight of these quirky king penguins walking around in the snow. They non-nonchalantly walked past the rows of wide-eyed tourists like some haughty princes from medieval times. The king penguin is very large compared to other species. Fully grown, they can reach up to three feet tall. They can be easily identified by their vivid orange, tear-shaped patches on each side of the head.

I also caught a glimpse of the Red Panda from close up, something I missed on my trip to Sikkim. They are so cute and cuddly but appear so serious all the time. The red panda is native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China. They usually only eat the youngest, most tender shoots and leaves of bamboo.  These furry animals spend most of their lives in trees and even sleep aloft.

We walked around looking at the various other animals in the zoo. The Snow leopards and other carnivorous animals are in small cages and you will not enjoy them. It took us approximately three hours to enjoy the zoo. Mani did some shopping at the souvenir store. The cafeteria at the Zoo has nice food. We took our lunch there and were ready to leave by noon.

Asahiyama Zoo had not been this popular even a decade ago. It was only in 1999 that the zoo started to stay open during the winter season for the first time  Today, despite Asahiyama’s relatively remote location and modest scale, visitor numbers rival those at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo. I do not approve of zoos but I greatly appreciate the good work they are putting in at Asahiyama. Below I have posted some of the photos taken at the Zoo. I hope you like them.

Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani

The Japanese Macaque (Nihon-zaru), colloquially known as the “snow monkey,” holds a unique place in nature. In the hot springs region of Yudanaka, Japan, these monkeys have adapted to extreme cold and are highly sought by photographers as they bathe in the natural hot springs.

Today, I travelled almost 1000 km, to and back to experience the ecology, and record the conservation efforts surrounding the snow monkeys of Yudanaka. Half a day is certainly not enough to do a thorough research but I did end up with quite a bit of first-hand information in that limited amount of time.

I have done some really tough day trips from Nara, and this is going to be right there among the top. Yudanaka is really far far away. Apart from changing three trains at Nara, Kyoto, and then Nagano stations, I also had to catch a short bus ride and then walk about 2 km to reach my destination in Jigokudani (地獄谷).

It was going to be challenging so it had to be an early start in the morning from Nara. I woke up at dawn, walked down to Nara Station, and caught the 6:30 a.m. train to Kyoto. Because I was holding a JR Pass, I didn’t have to spend any time at the ticket counters. I reached Kyoto at around 7 a.m. and from there caught the 7:29 a.m. Thunderbird to Kanazawa.

The train was almost empty and I was able to obtain a window seat, facing east. One of the most beautiful aspects of the train line from Kyoto to Kanazawa is that you can enjoy beautiful views of Lake Biwa and the lovely Shiga countryside. In early February, most parts of Shiga still lie in the embrace of fresh layers of snow, making it a serene and enchanting winter wonderland. The landscape, which is lush and green in Summer, transforms into a pristine white canvas, where every tree, house, and field is adorned with a delicate frosting of snowflakes.

One of the most iconic views of Lake Biwa is of the Torii at Shirahige Jinja.

As the train sped along the Shiga countryside and entered the mountains, the white plains gave way to trees blanketed in snow creating a breathtaking tableau of winter’s magic. Each branch, bough, and leaf was gracefully cloaked in a pristine, glistening white coat, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary.

I reached Naganao at around 11 a.m. After grabbing a bite at the Starbucks counter inside Nagano station, I caught the local train to Yudanaka on the Nagano Dentetsu Line. The Nagano Dentetsu Line, also known as Nagaden (長電), is a charming and scenic railway that traverses the picturesque landscapes of Nagano Prefecture, Japan. This rail route meanders through the heart of the Japanese Alps, offering passengers breathtaking views of snow-capped mountains and quaint villages covered in mounds of snow.

Please note that the Nagano Dentetsu Line is NOT covered by the JR Pass. You can buy the ticket for Yudanaka at the Nagano Station ticket counter.

The train from Nagano to Yudanaka takes about 45 minutes. This line also serves as a link for tourists going to the town of Obuse, the hot springs at Yudanaka, and the ski resorts at Shiga Kōgen. It connects various attractions, including the renowned hot spring town of Yudanaka, and the tranquil Lake Nojiri, making it a delightful way to explore the hidden gems of Nagano while enjoying the soothing rhythm of the train’s passage through this scenic wonderland.

Part of the wider Yamanouchi area, the historic town of Yudanaka is home to numerous hot spring guesthouses and public baths. The water is said to hold powerful healing properties and specific medicinal benefits. As such, the Japanese have been coming to the towns for centuries, including injured samurai during warring periods to recuperate and relax in the ancient waters.

Again from Yudanaka Station, I had to catch a bus. I reached the Jigokudani Monkey Park entrance at 2 p.m. From the entrance gate where the bus dropped me off, there is again a 20-30 minute hike in the snow to the hot springs. The park was developed as a conservation and tourism initiative by the local authorities and community in the Yamanouchi area of Nagano Prefecture, Japan. The park’s establishment was primarily driven by the need to protect and preserve the Japanese macaques, commonly known as snow monkeys, and their natural habitat. The idea was to create a space where visitors could observe and learn about these monkeys while contributing to their conservation efforts.

Snow monkey

The Jigokudani Monkey Park (Jigokudani Yaenkōen) is home to 200+ snow monkeys. The Japanese Macaque, or snow monkey, is a species of Old World monkey native to Japan. There are approximately 180 monkey species distributed worldwide, including gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, baboons, and squirrels, among others. The majority of these species reside in regions spanning Africa and Southeast Asia, encompassing both tropical and subtropical zones. In contrast, the Japanese Macaque stands out as the world’s northernmost non-human wild primate.

Among its various populations, the monkeys inhabiting the Yudanaka region have gained international attention for their behavior of bathing in natural hot springs during the winter months. The Yudanaka region is characterized by its cold, snowy winters, and steep terrain. The snow monkeys primarily inhabit coniferous and broadleaf forests at elevations ranging from 500 to 2,500 meters above sea level.

Snow monkeys are omnivorous, consuming a wide range of food, including leaves, fruits, insects, and small vertebrates. During the harsh winters, they rely heavily on bark, buds, and the occasional scavenged human food.

The path can be slippery, so please wear proper footwear, especially if you are coming in winter.

Several steam vents can be found in the area. These vents are natural geological features that release steam or hot gases into the atmosphere. These vents are often found in proximity to hot springs, geysers, or other geothermal areas and are a result of underground volcanic activity and the circulation of groundwater. They are fun to watch as they frolic in the onsen, and chase each other.

These macaques have developed several adaptations to survive in frigid conditions, such as thick fur, a fat layer for insulation, and specialized behaviors like huddling and the use of hot springs for thermoregulation.

Unlike a Zoo experience, you can find the monkeys sitting in groups or enjoying a lazy afternoon freely in the open.

Do not touch or yell on the monkeys especially baby monkeys. Adult monkeys might fear for their safety and attack you.

These monkeys face extreme cold environments, enduring temperatures as low as ten degrees below freezing. This is why they have come to be commonly referred to as “Snow Monkeys.”

Dress warmly because at an altitude of 850 meters, the temperatures during winter can be very cold.

The colors of the coats of these monkeys can vary among shades from light bistre to dark bistre. Average body weights for males are between 12kg-15kg, for females are between 8kg-13kg. 

The numbers of their teeth are the same as human, start with 20 baby teeth and then change to 32 permanent teeth.

Various types of food and feeding methods are employed at the facility, depending on the available resources. The staff provides the monkeys with choices like barley with chaff, soybeans, or apples, which are selected based on factors such as weather and season. For example, barley and soybeans offer higher nutritional value compared to the monkeys’ usual diet of grass, tree leaves, and flowers. During the autumn season, the monkeys have access to natural treats like grapes and chestnuts in the nearby mountains. On such occasions, apples are sometimes included in their diet. However, the monkeys are highly attracted to human food, so the staff diligently manages their nutrition to prevent overconsumption and potential ecological disruptions.

Tourists feeding the monkeys is strictly prohibited. Do not show or give them any food.

Do not stare monkeys’ eyes closely. Staring and opening one’s mouth to them mean hostile.

The snow monkeys of Yudanaka are a captivating example of how wildlife can adapt to extreme environmental conditions. Their unique behavior of bathing in hot springs has made them famous worldwide. However, they also face significant conservation challenges due to human activities and climate change. By studying and understanding their behavior, ecology, and conservation needs, we can work toward ensuring the continued survival and well-being of these remarkable creatures, enriching both our scientific knowledge and our appreciation for the natural world.

Check the webcam. There’s a webcam at the park that gives you a live view of what’s happening at the onsen. If you take a look and you don’t see any monkeys, it probably won’t be worth making the trek.

Thanks for reading!

Open Hours

8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Acessibility Issues

Wheelchairs and carts are not accessible in either approach due to unpaved roads, uneven surfaces and steps.