Like a genie from a lamp, rising steam from the hot water spring melts itsy-bitsy snowflakes from the baby‘s frozen eyelashes. Lifting fragile arms into the ice-cold air, she shakes off the snow which has fallen, like a white bonnet, upon her tiny head. As she dives under the water‘s surface her pale moth-brown fur turns dark grizzly-bear brown.This little water baby is no human baby. She is a snow monkey.
Just a few weeks old, she is the offspring of the 100 or so Japanese macaque monkeys that live in Hell Valley in the Nagano region of central Japan. With nine of the country‘s 12 mountains found here, the area is steep, rocky and spectacular. Of volcanic origin, the region famously hisses and bubbles with its numerous sulphurous streams, steam vents and thermal springs called onsen.
It‘s usually people that are spotted enjoying the onsen, but come the onset of winter – when snow from Siberia sweeps over the Japanese Sea and falls onto Nagano‘s mountains, temperatures plummet to below freezing and its evergreen mountainside trees transform into forests of white giants – it‘s the monkeys that take to the waters.
Despite nature‘s gift of a deep and dense wool-like winter coat, macaques (nicknamed snow monkeys) feel the cold. Plunging into a hot pool, filled with waters directly drawn from geothermic springs, is the best way to defrost frozen monkey bones.Throughout December, January and February it‘s possible to see – at close quarters – the macaques doing just this. It‘s believed this is the only place on earth where native wild monkeys regularly make use of hot springs in such a way.
And today is no exception. As snow continues to fall heavily, around 30 snow monkeys, of all ages, swim, sit in or lounge besides the pool enjoying the steamy warmth of the waters. Around four feet in height when standing, a trio of male elders sit in the water leaning against brown stone slabs that form the pool‘s edge. Ignoring the splashes and calls of juveniles, they sit motionless.
While they remain still as statues, a family group leaves the pool. Heading for nearby trees, monkey brothers and sisters, just like human children, gather snow and make balls to throw at one another. The baby of the group heads back to the pool, jumps in and pulls on the cobweb-thin whiskers of a snow monkey seemingly asleep in the water. The little one‘s mother gazes on undisturbed. For she knows that here – with a never-ending heat source created by the geothermic magic below – a baby‘s bath water never turns cold.