Visiting the hot springs where Japan’s famous macaques hang out, photographer Jasper Doest shows us we have more in common than we think.

Japanese macaques soaking in an alpine hot spring at Jigokudani Yaen-koen (aka Wild Snow Monkey Park). These macaques live farther north than any other nonhuman primate. And in the 1960s, the macaques here started bathing in one of the hot springs, or onsens. But this created an unhygienic situation for human bathers, so a separate pool was built for the macaques.

Today a group of around 160 monkeys soaks there. The spot is now a major tourist attraction, and a business anchor for the local community. Busloads of visitors, from all over the world, buy tickets to see the monkeys, which are fed by park officials. It’s not a zoo—the macaques are still wild animals—but with so many visitors it almost feels like one.

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During a blizzard in Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, on the island of Honshu, a Japanese macaque shakes off snow and water drops while resting on a rock that’s poking out of a hot spring.

Japanese macaques take a hot bath during winter in Jigokudani. The air temperature here is below freezing, but the water is well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Relaxed by the steamy warmth of the water, the monkeys often fall asleep while bathing.

Japanese macaques take a hot bath during winter in Jigokudani. The air temperature here is below freezing, but the water is well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Relaxed by the steamy warmth of the water, the monkeys often fall asleep while bathing.

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Two young snow monkeys huddle close together, trying to keep warm during the winter cold. These intelligent, highly social animals live on three of Japan’s four main islands.

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A macaque stretches out its foot, trying to grab food that’s been thrown in the water by park staff. Different monkeys have different strategies. Some dive for their food and swim underwater; others, like this one, use their feet to grasp food that’s fallen to the bottom.

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One Japanese macaque grooms another on a streambed in Jigokudani Yaen-koen. For these monkeys—and most other primates—the act of grooming is more than merely hygienic: It also strengthens and reinforces social bonds and relationships among individuals.

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After swimming underwater, a young macaque emerges with a splash. You don’t see the same monkey every day here. They go off into the mountains and return to the hot springs whenever they feel like it. Sometimes you won’t see a particular one for days, and then it’ll suddenly appear again.

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A young macaque soaks in a hot spring, inspecting its own fur. My goal with this series was to create portraits where the monkeys’ behavior and personality would shine through.

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At Wild Snow Monkey Park, one grooming macaque lends another a helping hand. Primates have such distinct facial expressions; I think that’s why it’s easier for us to relate to them than to other types of animals. Watching these Japanese macaques for years, you start recognizing individual characters—and you begin to sort of fall in love with your subjects.

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As a blizzard swirls in Japan’s Wild Snow Monkey Park, a juvenile macaque clambers out of the hot spring it had been soaking in.

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Japanese macaques bathe together in the park, half a mile above sea level. High-altitude habitats like this one can be harsh, receiving several feet of snow in winter. The warm waters here seem to protect and soothe many of these monkeys.


Story and Photographs by Jasper Doest

“Snow Monkeys” appears in the October issue of National Geographic Magazine.