The Japanese Macaque: Messenger of the Gods
That largely temperate Japan has its own endemic species of monkey comes as some surprise to those associating monkeys and apes with season-less tropical or sub-tropical areas. In fact, Japan's monkeys are unusual in being among the northernmost of all non-human primates.
The Japanese Macaque ranges from the northern tip of Honshu, where it endures frigid winters with deep snows, to as far south as isolated Yakushima, a humid, sub-tropical island to the south of Kyushu. Among other monkeys, perhaps only the Grey Langur of the Himalaya inhabit such a wide range of temperatures and conditions.
These are social, clannish creatures ruled over by dominant males and females. Their strong family bonds and the closeness of their group life-style has led to different cultural elements appearing in different regions.
In the south, some have learned to wash their food; at Jigokudani, in the valley of the hells, close to the Japan Alps in Nagano Prefecture, in the centre of Japan, some extraordinary monkeys have made another discovery - the pleasure of hot spring bathing.
It seems that taking to the waters first began only in the late 1960's with an animal known as "Tokiwa". Her bathing habits have spread to many of the animals in the troop that use the valley. But how did she learn? Was it from watching human visitors to the hot pools?
Japanese Macaques are amazingly hardy, and by growing long shaggy winter coats, they are able to survive the severe and deep snowy winters on Aomori Prefecture's Shimokita Peninsula, at Honshu's northern tip, and in other parts of northern Japan where they are known, appropriately, as "Snow Monkeys".
Throughout the long winters they huddle together in their nighttime roosts, waking with the sun to wander in the deep snows of the northern forests, eking out a meagre existence. They are often reduced to gnawing at tree bark as food, there is so little else other than buds for them to eat during this season, but once the snow begins melting in the spring, as fresh tree buds and spring flowers and growth begin to appear, so they find plenty again in the forest.
Strangely, it is now the Jigokudani monkeys that are world-renowned as "Snow Monkeys". Images of them in northern snows have, however, been superseded by, images of them bathing in the hot springs in Jigokudani, yet the old name has stuck.
Now, "Snow Monkeys" and monkeys in hot springs are indelibly linked in the minds of those who associate Japan with macaques. Whereas monkeys and deep snow go together naturally over a wide area of northern Japan in winter, and have done so throughout the evolution of this species, macaques and hot springs are an entirely different, and apparently modern matter and restricted to just the one valley. We should really refer to those in Jigokudani as the "Hot Spring Monkeys".
Each morning they advance up the valley with all the arrogance of an army invading in the absence of the enemy. The arena, the famous steep-sided valley in the mountains of Honshu, looks battle-worn and weary. Only the on-onlookers change from day to day, for the invading troops are a troupe - of Japanese Macaques - and they return on a daily basis.
Back in the days when two troupes took turns, altercations took place in the valley, which had all the hallmarks of a staged play. There were no "real" fisticuffs. Those departing were already on their way at the allotted time and hardly needed any chivvying on by the new arrivals. If you waited long enough and the whole process repeated itself, with the latter-day invaders themselves being invaded and turfed out of their briefly won kingdom.
The main feature of the valley is of course its hot spring and the fact that the monkeys have, like the comedian's stereotyped German tourists laying out towels possessively on sun-chairs at dawn, established proprietorial rights over it.
Winter is best; then their pleasure in the hot spring is transparent. Then their coats, where they are exposed, are frosted even coated with snow, yet they look so warm and content (until that is they walk off to the forest again). I am at a loss to explain why they sit in the pool during the day and go off to the forest at night. Given the temperature in the forest at night, I know where I would choose to sit!
But the hot spring is more than just a place to warm up or to keep warm, for some of the younger animals it is also a popular play area. Character comes in to it obviously here. Watch carefully and you will see some troupe members using the pool like members of a stuffy elite London club, or as if they were children on an outing from one of the better private schools - rather orderly, even boringly sedate.
You'll see others taking their turn behaving as if a combination between an onsen-starved family outing and a public swimming pool during the school holidays. Even if signs were posted as to the accepted modes of behaviour in and around the pool I have the distinct feeling that they would all be ignored. Like human children, they often flout the rules, and break decorum by running along the side, jumping in on top of other users, and harassing those relaxing outside.
The popularity of the valley with the monkeys has bred a staged atmosphere, and in recent years it seems the monkeys have made a truce, forming one large troupe of about 200 individuals. Here monkeys are common, sure to be seen, so, hot on their heels, come the human visitors who often outnumber the monkeys.
To ensure that the human visitors are not disappointed, the monkeys are attracted to a central area where endless memory cards can be filled with stills and videos of their fascinating antics. These are wild monkeys, yet their daily pattern of behaviour has been quite dominated by man's voyeuristic needs.
The food put out for the monkeys is a mixture of apples, fine grain and soybeans, depending on the season. Its not accident that some of the soybeans find their way into the pool; they certainly don't stay there!
The adults play things very coolly, with their long limbs they are able to simply stroll around in the pool peering, as if myopic, down into the water, allowing a little for refraction and delicately picked out the beans from the rocky floor of the pool. For the younger members, though, it is a hell of a rambunctious game.
Underwater, is not the normal view one imagines having of a forest-dwelling monkey. Most typical would be to encounter them fossicking amongst the leaf litter of autumnal or wintry woodlands, then, when the trees are less densely leafed they are more easily located and watched, but where the hot pools of Jigokudani and a ready supply of food attract them, they can be found easily at any time of the year.
Youngsters are still too small to strut and pick at the daizu on the pool floor, but amazingly they are bold enough to duck dive to reach them. Out of water a healthy monkey's coat provides an image of a well-formed well-built creature. Totally saturated and immersed it loses this image entirely and ends up looking like an oily skinny thing wrapped in old, wet cat skin!
When I first watched them dive I imagined that they must surely search out the beans by touch, running a hand across the rough floor of the pool would be likely to come up with something, but from their expressions as they emerged I realised that they were actually searching with their eyes open.
The waters, being volcanically heated, they have exactly the eye and nose stinging mineral content that our baths don't! On emerging into the air each time, the divers rub their hands across their eyes and noses, just as I know I would, had I immersed myself fully in a somewhat sulphurous hot spring. Yet they soon return to duck-diving again, obviously the lure of the submerged beans is more compelling than the stinging of eyes or nose!
In Japan we are lucky in having one native representative of the Old World Primates - the Japanese Macaque - though this species experiences very mixed fortunes here. Even though as many as 50,000 individuals may live in Japan, that hardly qualifies it as endangered, yet given the ambivalent attitude to all wildlife in Japan, that whole troops may be eradicated as "pests", and given the continued fragmentation of their natural mixed forest habitat, we have a species under severe stress.
In some places it is indulged and fed, while at other sites it is persecuted as a farm pest. Some are caught for medical or biological research, while others have been shipped overseas to zoos and collections.
The final insult now is that someone with minimal understanding of the uniqueness of islands species has released the equally endemic Formosan Rock Macaque (naturally restricted to the island of Taiwan) into Japan. Their presence has led to a number of cases of hybridisation, thus Honshu island macaques must now add genetic degradation to the various other problems they face. Some local populations are becoming endangered, even extinct.
If you are lucky enough to meet some though, give a thought to their extraordinary range of achievements. They have proved resourceful and inventive over the years, adapting to an extraordinary array of foods, and adapting their behaviour to make it possible to eat them.
Japanese Macaques do not have prehensile tails, and they do not chew gum, brachiate, or bellow calls out across the forest canopy as some species of monkeys do in other parts of the world. Instead, they can swim, they take hot baths, and they have developed cultural traditions such as washing certain foods.
At Koshima, off southern Kyushu, for example, they have learned to wash muddy sweet potatoes. Oddly, when they are now given clean sweet potatoes they still wash them, presumably because they have learned to enjoy the salt tang, which brings out the vegetable's flavour.
Where they have been fed grain on a sandy beach they have learned to sieve the sand to pick up just the grains, and some have even learned that if they throw handfuls of grain and sand in to tide pools that the grains float and can be picked out easily!
Where they have been introduced overseas, they have learned which local species of plants are palatable and they have developed a new alarm call used only for rattle-snakes - and some people call them just monkeys.
Having learned to wash and salt their food, bathe and dive, all in the last forty years or so, one wonders what they will learn next, perhaps to take their own photographs? Perhaps what we are seeing is primate cultural evolution in action!
Monkey Facts and Monkey Lore
Japanese Macaques have a distinct, seasonally driven breeding cycle. From October to December, both male and female Japanese Macaques develop bright skin, which is particularly noticeable on their faces.
During the breeding season, they live in a relatively ordered society comprised of multi-male and multi-female groups, with several dominant males surrounded by several dominant females and their young, and many more sub-dominant individuals of both sexes.
Younger males hang out around the periphery ever hopeful of their amorous advances succeeding in drawing a female away from her group for - just long enough! With spring and summer come plum and cherry blossoms, a plethora of food and the infant macaques.
By late summer and autumn, when the mountain forests offer them a rich harvest of nuts and berries, the previous year's young are being weaned. But all too soon the temperature drops and snow falls again, and they become snow monkeys (or hot spring monkeys) once more.
Among Japan's very many legends, there are numerous references to monkeys and Red Foxes, seemingly because both animals reveal their cleverness. In folktales, in which humans, animals and deities appear together in the natural world, it is not surprising that the most human-like animal, the monkey, has attained a special role.
It is considered a sacred mediator, the messenger of many deities, carrying messages up and down mountains between the deities and the people. The monkey's character though is ambivalent, being variously described as: greedy, ugly, evil, a trickster, malicious and cunning, yet it is also known as good, witty, humorous, and even lovable.
Do's and Don'ts when around wild Japanese Macaques
If you ever find yourself in close proximity to Japanese Macaques there are some important rules to follow. Please don't feed them, and don't attempt to touch them. Remember they are wild. And make sure that you don't look them in the eye. Such a mannerism as staring will be interpreted as intimidation or even aggression and may provoke an aggressive response.
That may be manageable if you have accidentally intimidated a small female or a young male, but if you are close to a larger animal it is not worth the risk of finding out intimately just what the dentition of an Old World primate is like. The threat response with bared teeth can be alarming even if the threat is taken no further.
Map of Jigokudani Monkey Park
Text and Photographs: Mark Brazil
Related Japan Nature Articles
A writer, naturalist and wildlife guide, Mark spends half of each year travelling in search of wildlife and the other half writing about it from his base in Hokkaido.
Born and educated in England and Scotland, Mark spent more than ten years involved in the making of natural history documentaries for television, and nine years as a professor of biodiversity of conservation at Rakuno Gakuen University near Sapporo.
He began contributing his column, Wild Watch, to The Japan Times newspaper in April 1982, and has been writing about natural history and travel ever since.
His latest book, a field guide, Birds of East Asia, was published to considerable acclaim in 2009, by A&C Black and Princeton University Press.
You can learn more about Mark and his work via his website: www.japannatureguides.com