Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Kyoto - Arashiyama Monkey Park

After a few days in Kyoto, Nana and I were beginning to feel pretty cultured, what with all those temples and museums and all those fancy clothes. So on our last day in Kyoto, we decided it was time for some monkeys.

The forests of Japan are home to a robust population of around 100,000 Japanese macaques. These intelligent "snow monkeys" are the northernmost population of non-human primates in the world, and are probably most famous for their love of hot springs in the winter. (You've seen shots like this before.)

On Mt. Arashiyama, on the western outskirts of Kyoto, there lives a troop of about 170 semi-wild Japanese macaques. At the Iwatayama Monkey Park (oddly enough, called the "Arashiyama Monkii Paaku," 嵐山モンキーパーク, in Japanese), visitors can feed the monkeys from inside a little building with caged windows and can snap photos of the monkeys on a pretty little hilltop plateau. (Mark Frauenfelder of BoingBoing visited with his family last August.)

"Monkey Mountain Entrance."

Another of the photorealistic illustrations so common in Japan.

I don't think this little shrine at the foot of the hill
has anything to do with the monkeys.
The park encompasses a hilltop partway up the eastern slope of Mt. Arashiyama, so it's about a thirty-minute hike to get there from the river valley below, unless you stop to watch some monkeys do their thing. The park doesn't recommend this - these are not small animals, and like most of us primates, they can be pretty dangerous when upset.

However, while the park may encourage guests to make their way to the top as quickly as possible, sometimes circumstances intervene. Suffice it to say that the monkey holds a place in Japanese culture similar to that of the rabbit in the West - amorous young couples are said to be, ahem, behaving like monkeys. When a pair of actual monkeys begins behaving like monkeys in the middle of the path to the top of the hill, it can create quite a traffic jam.

I will refrain from posting a picture here, partly out of respect for the noble monkey's (nonexistent) sense of propriety, partly because the male seemed pretty peeved at this Japanese guy who tried to photograph them in the act.

Anyway, a park ranger, no doubt puzzled by the sudden lack of visitors cresting the hill, came down to scare the lovebirds off, and the rest of the visit went without a hitch.

At the top of the hill is a small plateau where the monkeys come and go, with views of the city to the east and the Arashiyama suburbs to the north.

The plateau is patrolled by white-suited rangers, who generally keep the monkeys in line, and can also stage photos for guests. The little guy in the shot below was lured over by a few well-placed chestnuts.

Inside the hut, you can find laminated profiles of the monkey parks' "stars." This one appears to be named . . . Miso? I think? In any case, it seems she rates four stars.

Inside the hut, visitors can buy little treats for the monkeys - apple slices, peanuts, and chestnuts seem to be the favorites. Monkeys hang from the caged windows around the outside, looking for handouts.

Nana and I tried to feed the little ones first.

Nana was particularly charmed. (E-mail readers: This one's a video, so you'll have to come to the site itself if you want to view it.)
Oh, and the feeding-time bell? Which led to a disconcerting stampede of monkeys just as we were making our way down the hill? The cancan, from Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld. The perfect soundtrack for a ravening horde of macaques.

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