The Japanese Macaque is a terrestrial Old World monkey species that is native to Japan. They have become known as the snow monkey due to the fact they are the most northern living non-human primates on Earth, with the possible exception of the Abominable snowman. Regrettably, I have yet to photography that species, but not for lack of trying. Interestingly, there is much folklore of Abominable snowman reported in Hokkaido, Japan, and if any of the Abominable will pop their heads out during my annual Hokkaido Photo Tour, or on any of my Japan Photo Tours, or when I am sitting at my cottage around Teshikaga, Hokkaido, I will definitely take a snapshot or two and happily share.
Returning to the Japanese macaque species, I have photographic records and GPS concordance of where snow monkey troops reside in the regions of Nagano, Niigata, Akita, Yamagata, Fukushima, Kanagawa, Tokyo, Yamanashi, and about a dozen other Prefectrues across Japan. Japan is 3,000 km long with 47 Prefectures and has 6,852 islands, and across Japan, there are over one hundred thousand wild snow monkeys. Both for silly and well-founded reasons, international visitors and photographers, 99% including of Japanese tourists, go to Jigokudani Monkey Park to photograph snow monkeys. Jigokudani Yaenkoen was established in 1964 in the Jigokudani Valley in Yamanouchi. At first, the hot spring bath up in the foothills were built for human use where the source of the hot springs water pours naturally from the ground and is feed to the famous hot springs village Yudanaka where visitors have gone to relax in the healing hot springs for hundreds of years. But soon after the construction of hot springs baths in the foothills, the monkeys soon claimed them as their domain. Hence, the town’s local government authorized the construction of another one hoping that tourists would come to watch the snow monkey troop bathing. It soon paid off, becoming first a Japanese tourist hit and then a worldwide sensation. Don’t get me wrong, I love the park, it’s a beautiful place to vacation, and it’s easy photography, but keep in mind out of the over one hundred thousand wild Japanese macaques, there are around 200 monkeys who live in three separate monkey troops, and even that includes the several smaller troops in the park. This still only equates to 0.2% of Japanese Macaques, yet 99% of the tourists visit this location exclusively for snow monkey photography! A little out of proportion if you ask me, but if you are a weekend photograph or on a tight schedule, I suggest Nagano snow monkey park, which I use for my annual Hokkaido Photo Tour, and I use the park for my Essence of Autumn Photo Tour, and my annual Cherry Blossom Photo Tour. But when I am on assignment, or I am leading a group of professional wildlife photographers, we sometimes visit the park for a day, then my clients and I move on, and we prefer to view the Japanese Macaque in a 100% natural behavior and environment.
The Japanese Macaque occurs in most of Japan except for the most southern Islands of Japan, and of course Hokkaido; the monkeys do not call Hokkaido home due to climate which is similar to Alaska, so it would be next to impossible for the world's most northern living wild non-human primate to survive there in the wild. My primary home and office are nestled into the countryside hamlet just outside of Tokyo in Kanagawa. The Japanese Macaques often climb over my house and raid my neighbors’ gardens. A few years back. I was entertaining friends and clients at my home for a BBQ, and a Japanese Macaque ran across my front rock Zen garden carrying a Chinese cabbage like it was a football. To this day, I have never seen anything quite like it, and you can be sure from that moment on, I always have a camera ready on BBQ days. In Kanagawa, as in most mountain ranges across Japan, hundreds of monkeys live in various troops. Most troops have between 30 - 70 monkeys, and they have a strongly hierarchical society where every monkey holds a position, any more than 70 monkeys would be impossible for an Alpha, his sentries, and lieutenants to control. Monkeys who refuse the rule of the alpha’s edicts are chased away, and they start their own troops.
Mating season is amazing to capture the true untold stories of these monkeys; their faces glow in bright reds as if their faces betray their fiery impulse to procreate. Several males dash around quickly, often chasing their partners down. Sometimes their efforts are successful, and other times not so much. One thing you must always keep in mind is that these are wild monkeys, and if you visit during the mating season, be extra vigilant not to upset the macaques or stare down any monkeys; you will more than likely be hissed at, or possibly they will lunge forward at you, showing their dominance.
In the coming weeks, I will be in the backcountry highlands of Niigata, Japan photographing camping hiking for about two weeks with hot natural wild hot springs in the area, and it's where several hundred monkeys call home.
The cameras I used for the image on this newsletter are the Nikon D850 or the D6. Lenses for wildlife I use are the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR or Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR. AF-S TELECONVERTER TC800-1.25E ED or I used the Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM Sports. Camera settings for wildlife I generally recommend about 1/2000sec, f/11, ISO 500, or higher depending on lightings; but when it is -10℃ to -15℃, the monkeys will be in the hot springs and not moving so much, then you can use a slower shutter speed. But I seldom use slower shutter speeds due to those once in a lifetime shots that occur, such as the cover image of this newsletter, which is the Alpha of the largest snow monkey troop in hell valley Nagano. I love this shot; I captured it during mating season at the snow monkey park in Nagano, and I have never seen another like it and may never again; what I like about it most is the raw natural power and instinctive, natural action pose, and it is not the typical Zen pose that most go for that I adore too.