Won’t You Take Me To… Monkeytown

Jigokudani Monkey Park is SWELL.  It was exactly what I’ve been waiting for this entire trip, and I’m so glad I chose the primate ending.  (Side note: what is the etymology of “primate”?  Is it, like, first friend?  Because monkeys do a lot of friendshippy things like eat bugs off each other and frolic together.  I have to look this up…  Okay, apparently it means of the highest order of mammals, which currently includes monkeys and humans and which also initially included bats.  Bats, right?  I wonder if we demoted them or moved them sideways into their own category.  Hold on, I have to look that up, too.

Okay, that was super interesting.  Bats are essentially nocturnal mammalian bumble bees, eating mosquitoes and pollinating flowers and being awesome at nighttime stuff in exactly the way that I am- here in Bangkok- not.  But they’re also really smart and have other primate-like characteristics, although there are so many differences that scientists aren’t really sure how to classify them yet, and will likely create a new phylum or whatever just for them.  Bats might have given us AIDS and ebola, though, instead of the apes I assumed from reading fictional stories by people who also wrote things like Jurassic Park.  So there’s that.)

Anyway, the monkey park was astonishingly cool!

I was very grateful to Shimaya-san because he gave me a ride up the mountain to the park’s entrance and said he’d pick me up again when I was done.  He took this picture of me forcing a smile through my still-raging hangover, and off I went:

Thus started the most beautiful walk I’ve walked. Brave, kind, or desperate people cut an even path into a steep ole mountain, making sure these soldierly trees would diffuse the sunlight:

ImageThey were also thoughtful enough to politely warn the mouth-breathers among us, and then tickle the imaginations of the animal-friendly.  I don’t even particularly like being close to most animals, but I still wanted to see a goat-antelope.

ImageImageThere was also something called troglodyte troglodyte that I didn’t see, but I filed the name safely away to use the next time I want a creative way to call someone a bonehead.

I walked for over half an hour, and even though it was spectacularly beautiful, I was becoming acutely aware that something called “monkey mountain” would have mountains in it, too.  Mountains I would have to climb, and for which I should prepare by drinking lots of water, having a hearty breakfast, and strapping on appropriate shoes.  Since I had done zero of those things, I had to just call myself a troglodyte and push forward.

Finally, I came upon these guys!

ImageI did the thing with the sharp intake of breath, then the thing when both hands and both forearms start flapping wildly at the wrists and elbows, then the thing where you look frantically around for someone with whom to share the experience, to say “do you- oh my god do you SEE that?  MONKEYS!” 

And then I was singing that George Michael song, and it was great, and who are you to judge? 

Everything went away except the macaques.


So, I’m not generally the kind of person who wants to go places and see touristy things like temples and churches and such.  I’m wildly interested in religions and their myths and power structures and ambiguous rule-making, but for the most part, I’ve been able to glean much more from reading and photos.  When I’m traveling, I want to interact.  I wanted the monkeys to throw poop at me!

Well not totally, but I think I’d be much less upset than average if it happened.  There’s this kid at school who expressed almost worrisome interest in hearing about it if the monkeys threw poop at me, and I sort of wanted to be able to tell him the story.  This is as close as I came, though:

ImageAt any rate, I’ve been interested in the Japanese macaques for a few years, ever since that summer at Round Pond- David was three, I think, and couldn’t read yet- when he became obsessed with one of the old issues of National Geographic that we have lying around.  “Aunt Carrie, will you read me the Gorilla Mazagine?” I heard at least three times a day.  We would go cover to cover looking at the pictures, and when he asked me to read, I’d either do so or creatively edit around the genocidal massacring.  He was really most interested in the dinosaurs, silverbacks, and whaleburgers, and I was utterly charmed by the way he enunciated “macaques” on the Japanese monkey page.  The pictures were awesome, too.  They were taken in winter, when the monkeys visit the natural hot springs to reverse-chill out and warm themselves, and their ecstatic expressions scream “anthropomorphise me, baby!”

It’s like, oh hey, old DNA.  Thanks for advancing and stuff.  You look peaceful and culture makes me shave now; who’s better off?

I think I sat at the pool for a couple of hours watching the monkeys bask, splash, and give each other the finger:

ImageImageImageThe babies were especially cute:

ImageWhew- all these pictures are giving me metacarpal tunnel of the scrolling finger, so I need to wrap this up.  Because of its absolute beauty and complete foreignness, however, I can confidently say that my monkeying was paws-down the most awe-inspiring time I’ve ever had with animals.  If this is how you nutso pet owners feel about your cats and dogs, I guess I understand you better now.  This experience busted right through the top of the neat-meter.

When it was time to go, I called for my ride and started the hike back, stopping intermittently to take a few more pics, a couple of which were supposed to show how close I was able to get:

ImageIt was about a kilometer more of this before meeting my ride:

Imagebut Shimaya-san wasn’t there!  Oh, the humanities!  At this point, it was early afternoon, I’d skipped two meals, what felt like all my earthly possessions were strapped to my back, plus my jacket was directing me toward solar meltdown.  It was a loooooooong walk to the train station.  Four miles down a mountain?  A long walk.  And luckily some guardian angel started posting “this way to the station” signs about halfway down, because I didn’t have a snowball’s chance of finding it on my own.

Come to think of it, echo location would’ve probably come in handy.  Audio-y.  Ear-y.  Whatever.

ADDENDUM: Six hours later I was finally back in Tokyo, checking my email to make sure the next day’s travel plans were in place.  Here’s what awaited me:

“Dear Caroline Foster
We are very sorry,
we made an irreparable mistake.
we forgot  to pick you up.
I’m very sorry.”

And you know what?  That’s what separates us from the monkeys, and all it takes for forgiveness. 


5 thoughts on “Won’t You Take Me To… Monkeytown

  1. Colleen Foster says:

    Loved this entry! Glad to see the reference to David and Round Pond. Brought back old memories and chuckles!


  2. jasmine says:

    Carrie! I’ve been reading your blog, and have enjoyed hearing of your adventure! I’ve always liked your writing, and am happy for you to have this experience to share. Looking forward to reading more….take care and have fun!


  3. linda damsky says:

    HI Caroline,
    I am a friend of Caroline Salsbury and have been teaching English in Japan from June 22-July 22nd. I love your posts. Absolutely hilarious,;yet so very accurate. Yes, schools are pretty consistent in Japan so we can relate to your experiences very well.
    I taught in Nagano, about 45 minutes from the infamous monkey park. Love it. Have bathed there many a time (this is my 13th trip here)
    Also, side-tripped to Thailand on my way home one time, so loving your take on Thai.
    Enjoy and safe travels home.


    • Hi Linda,

      I love that we’re having the same experience! I found the whole thing so interesting. Wanted to stop and check out Nagano, too, on my way back from the monkey park but at that point I was exhausted and on a schedule. I was hoping to run into some has-been Olympians talking Glory Days to the bottom of their glasses. Alas, maybe next time. Thanks for the kind words!



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