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Monkeys find rare sanctuary in Japan hot spring

By Kyung Lah, CNN
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Monkey bath becomes tourist must-see
  • For 46 years, Jigokudani Monkey Park has been sanctuary for snow monkeys
  • Nature photographer Vince Manna calls sanctuary "unique"
  • Residents had considered culling the animals
  • Park grew out of frustration over animals, which had broken into shops, homes
  • Japan

Nagano, Japan (CNN) -- In an outdoor natural hot spring, or onsen, in snow-covered Nagano, Japan, people get a rare up-close view of snow monkeys in their natural habitat.

The monkeys mostly ignore the tourists armed with their cameras and the scientists who've traveled hours to be within centimeters of the crimson-faced creatures.

For 46 years, the Jigokudani Monkey Park has been a sanctuary for these snow monkeys. The monkeys lounge, appearing to almost nod off in the steaming hot bath, almost all of them with hot water up to their shoulders.

"It's pretty incredible," says Kate Bokan-Smith, an American from California teaching English in Japan for a year. "At first, it's a little frightening. But it's special that the monkeys can eat their food, be here without being pestered by humans. And yet we can be this close. I think it's special."

Vince Manna, a nature photographer who has taken pictures of 200 species of monkeys in the Amazon, Africa and Southeast Asia, agreed. He's never seen anything like this sanctuary, he says, as he points his high powered camera lens towards the steaming onsen teeming with monkeys. "This is unique."

Jigokudani Monkey Park's beginnings were borne out of man's frustrations with the snow monkeys, whom Nagano residents considered pests. As Nagano grew deeper into the hills, the monkeys grew less wary of the human invaders. Monkeys regularly broke into shops and homes to steal food, even as people sat nearby, the park said.

Residents had considered culling the animals, who grew emboldened by the year. But the park owners noticed an unusual habit forming among the monkeys: They appeared to enjoy Nagano's main tourist attraction, the outdoor onsens.

The park decided to build a giant outdoor hot spring away from the town and deep in the mountains. Jigokudani Monkey Park also began regular feedings. These incentives drew many monkeys away from Nagano, although to this day, they still wander the town.

Nagano residents have since shifted their feelings toward the monkeys, as tourists started going to the monkey onsen.

French, English and Chinese are just a few of the languages being uttered around the onsen. "It's magical, fabulous!" said Christine Cocks, from Australia. "They're just so cute. You could stand and watch them all day."

Her family member, Jessiah, echoed the sentiments, calling the relationship between the town and the monkeys "symbiotic."

In the freezing snow with little human shelter, the tourists can only really stay for minutes. They'll head back to Nagano and spend money in the restaurants and hotels and talk about the magical monkeys in the hills.