07 April 2016

Monkeys from Hell....JAPAN (8 Feb. 2016)

To describe Japan as unique is a cliché; it is so different from anywhere else culturally that it is futile to compare it to anything else. Japan is Japan, its as simple as that. The culture though is not the only thing that is exceptional. Three of the countrys islands are also home to a primate found nowhere else, the Japanese Macaque Macaca fuscata. It is the only monkey found in Japan, which is not surprising when you consider the harsh climate of a Japanese winter, when subzero temperatures are a common occurrence. And, this is what makes this primate so absorbing. If you examine a map of the distribution of primate species around the world, one thing that will strike you is that the vast majority of the species occur in a belt across the middle of the world, in the tropics. Much of Japan can in no sense of the imagination be considered tropical, particularly during the depths of winter. Therefore, this monkey is also the most northerly living species in the world, completely at home living amongst snow and ice, and not flinching at near daily temperatures plummeting below zero. Its very nature has led to it being known in Internet circles as the Snow Monkey

What makes this monkey additionally odd, is that it is know to regularly bathe in natural hot springs. We headed to the prefecture of Nagano, and the valley of Jigokudani to see this firsthand. We may have been in the midst of a bird tour, but this day was all about monkeys, lots and lots of monkeys. The existence of such a phenomenon as photogenic bathing monkeys, in a country like Japan, where everyone seems to wield a camera, is therefore far from secret, and thousands make this primate pilgrimage each year. The park, after all, has been in existence since the 1960s. on arrival there was no doubting the well-advertised nature of the Monkey Park, as a series of tourist buses waited in one of the several car parks serving the site. Thankfully, the Japanese did not consider making a road right up to the monkeys, but instead a 2km walk is required to get there. This involves a gently rising, snow laden trail, which passes through tall, snow-dusted pine trees. At the time of our visit, with winter at its height, there seemed to be little life in the forest, save for the phalanx of humans walking down the trail. We made our way through this tranquil wintry scene, and eventually emerged to an opening, where steam rose impressively from the valley bottom, betraying the volcanic nature of the area. Such dramatic volcanic activity has given rise to its name; Jigokudani means Hells Valley

Soon we also saw macaques, dozens and dozens of macaques, seemingly oozing from every rocky surface. Moving further up still we found the famous pool, where the monkeys come to bathe, and there, in the center of the pool, were two red-faced monkeys. Their faces are naturally flushed in the manor of being at the very centre of a joke at their own expense, but sitting in the steaming pool, it gives the false impression that their facial surfaces are reacting to the volcanic heat around them.  We had just an hour on site, which many felt may be enough; after an hour there I quickly understood why photographers spend a whole morning, or even days there. Primates are absorbing creatures, with hypnotic behavior; there is simply so much to see and observe over time, particularly with the notoriously cantankerous macaques, which seem to spend an inordinately long amount of time fighting with each other, sometimes within inches of the assembled tourists. 

Their boisterous nature seemed never to be tempered by the gathered tourists; often a fight would break out right in the pathway of the surrounding people, some of them jumping aside in alarm, when a macaque came raging towards them. The object of its temper was always another monkey, and not the human tourists, but they seemed completely unabashed, and happy to charge at the offending monkey, even if this meant blasting through a horde of humans! 

Some of the monkey's dense winter coats were waterlogged following a recent dip, while others who were up on a rocky outcrop, well away from the pool, showed a dusting of snow on their thickly-furred chins.

After an hour we reluctantly left these pink-faced primates behind, as we pointed our cars southwest towards Komatsu, where our focus would again return to birds, and rare birds at that


Linda said...

Beautiful photos.

Unknown said...

Wonderful, Sam!