Amongst the Monkeys

Two primates, one clearly offspring of the other as demonstrated by measurable differences in size, explore the uphill areas of Kyoto’s Arashiyama Monkey Park.

A Day at Arashiyama Monkey Park, Kyoto

Follow the adventure: The Tokyo Toddler

Our first day in Kyoto dawned bright and lovely. We thought about all the walking we’d done over the last few days, and decided the flat, not-much-walking-required area of Arashiyama would be perfect. So I don’t know what then possessed us to hike a steep hill to see monkeys.

Oh yeah. Monkeys.

I don’t read Japanese yet, but I’m betting the parts we couldn’t read say, “Big long uphill walk this way.”

The Japanese macaque is the only non-human primate that lives this far north. Located at the top of the 160 m (525 ft.) Mt. Arashiyama on the outskirts of Kyoto, the Arashiyama Monkey Park (also known as Iwatayama Monkey Park), is the home of over 130 of these wee silver-furred buggers. Fed and maintained by staff, the monkeys nonetheless roam wild around the hilltop.

130 monkeys. Just what a 16-month-old toddler needs to see.

Unattended young monkey explores rough terrain in its new habitat, while learning essential ranging skills that will help it survive in the wild once old enough to leave its parents and get a job.

From the train station nearest Arashiyama, we stretched our legs with a sunshine walk down a bike/pedestrian lane. Connor could roam like a free-range monkey and smile at all the pretty ladies riding by on bicycles. (I don’t know where he gets this flirty charm.)

Getting to the park itself is fairly easy and straightforward. You wander a main street, past various cafes, shops, people selling green tea, and fascinating temples. After crossing a bridge to the left bank of the Oi River, you just keep going straight and then right toward the only big hill in the immediate area.

Remember: monkeys are thieving buggers with personal space issues, dietary restrictions and passive/aggressive tendencies. Some of my old girlfriends should have come with a sign like this.

Up a few steps and past a shrine—so people can pray the monkeys don’t wander into town?—the fun really begins.

For starters, no strollers. You’re going up steps and rough paths. This is one of many times we were relieved to have our baby carrier. Connor spent much of the hike strapped to my back, helping him save energy and me feel like a bad-ass.

Luckily, this map is not to anything approaching scale. The hardest part of the hike is the walk up to the “present location” red dot in the lower left corner of the map. From there, things get easier, the top is not nearly as far away as it looks, and—hey, look!—you can see monkeys along the way!

The first part of the hike was the hardest. First going up rough steps and then up a simple path, the going is steep. Between Jodie’s prosthetic left leg and the 28-pound load on my back, we stopped a few times to catch our breath. This also gave us a chance to really look at what was around us. The foliage reminded us of home, and here and there flowers were blooming.

But we also got another reminder of that Japanese attention to detail. There’s a steep drop to the left side of this part of the hike. A handrail fence had been constructed to give people a modicum of safety. At first glance, the fence and rails look to be made of wood, appropriate given the foresty environs. On a closer inspection, however, you realize that they are not wood at all. They are concrete, molded and stained to look like wood. The effect is harmonious with the surrounding environment, and the fence often even melds with the rest of the view. And, on a practical note, there’s probably less upkeep needed for the fence, so the park staff can devote resources elsewhere.

Though it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if some of those resources went to drawing maps to scale.

One of about 130 Japanese macaques at the park

We stopped for a longer rest on two benches by the not-to-scale map. After not seeing anyone for ages, Jodie and I decided this was also a good spot for Connor to nurse. As must then happen in circumstances such as this, Connor had hardly taken to the breast when crowds of people walked by, both coming up and going down. We merely smiled, and Connor kept right on eating, good little monkey that he is.

Nursing in public here has been a different experience for us. Accustomed to the nurse-anywhere attitude we know at home, it’s taken some time to get accustomed to the more reserved courtesies of Japanese culture. Usually Jodie has nursed Connor in private, such as the baby care rooms you see in various places. But in time we’d also been realizing that when kiddo’s got to nurse, well, nature trumps sensitivities. So if anyone was offended by the mom nursing her child as they walked past, well, tough ramen. I think, though, that most folks understood.

Look out kid, there’s a monkey behind you!

Once nursed and refreshed, Connor was ready to do some hiking of his own. Uneven terrain? Long drops to one side or the other? And did I mention we’re walking up a steep hill where wild monkeys with passive/aggressive tendencies are wandering free and unchecked?

Good on ya, kid, get walking.

I stuck close to Connor, of course, helping him over difficult spots he couldn’t quite figure out, or staying between him and the long drops off to one side. Some might think this is a bit nuts. I disagree. Like any living thing, Connor can only learn by doing. He needs a chance to try out his strength and abilities in new and different places. So I stayed near, but also stayed pretty hands-off, while Connor walked, climbed, and figured out how to navigate rough terrain and uneven steps.

I confess: I like that someday I can tell him he was hiking steep hills in Japan when he was a one-year-old. Besides, I knew what he had to look forward to: a hilltop covered in monkeys.

How many monkeys do you count on this wooden monkey house? (I found 4.) The hilltop viewing house lets you check out the monkeys from outside or inside (no monkeys inside, but there are refreshments, seats and a toilet).

The top of the hill came almost sooner than expected. We had a feeling the map had exaggerated the distance, and it turned out we were right. Monkeys wandered everywhere. Over the grounds. All over the roof and walls of a small building where you could sit inside and watch the macaques from behind a screen while enjoying a snack and a beverage.

We wandered both inside and out. And for the most part, all was fine. There were a couple of times where a monkey spotted Connor and started getting a bit close for comfort. When one macaque in particular sauntered up, its black eyes bright and wide in the midday sun, I did wonder what in hell I would do if a monkey grabbed onto my kid. Could I take a monkey in a fight?

Luckily, such ponderings wound up with no bearing in the tellings of this true travel story, though they may make a fun fictional scene someday. The macaque stared at us for a while, and then wandered elsewhere. Maybe he lost interest. Maybe something else caught his attention. And maybe he was wondering the same thing I was. But yeah, you just keep on walking, mac…aque.

Kyoto from the top of the hill at the monkey park, about 160 meters (525 feet) above sea level

Connor had a great time seeing the monkeys, and pointed and gestured and stomped as if he were one of their own. Eventually, though, it was time to head back down—but not without a stop at the toilet first.

Children’s toilet at the hilltop monkey park building.

Wandering down, of course, was much easier than going up. We put Connor on my back, and he soon was bouncing along in a deep sleep, probably with a side of monkey dreams. Jodie and I talked, admired the scenery, and just enjoyed each other’s company. At the bottom of the hill, we picked up our stroller and wandered back toward town.

We’d worked up quite an appetite. It was time to check out which plastic food displays promised a tasty yet budget-friendly lunch. And after forgoing easy flat walking for a steep, intense, arduous hike up a hill while carrying a toddler, it was definitely time to rest and reflect on what had, in fact, turned out to be a wonderful and unique way to pass much of our first day in Kyoto.

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2 thoughts on “Amongst the Monkeys”

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for sharing your experience at Monkey Park. We’re planning a trip in March and wanted to know where you left the stroller before starting the hike. We’re traveling with little ones and don’t want to come back to a missing stroller!

    Thank you

  2. One very nice thing about Japan is how little crime there is. For example, when we were couchsurfing in Kobe, the couple we stayed with told us how no one locks their doors at home.

    Once you get to the Monkey Park, there’s a little booth area where you get tickets. We stashed our stroller somewhere past that point. But you can rest easy about it going missing. That lack of worry is definitely something I miss about Japan 🙂

    Depending on the ages of your little ones, be ready either to carry or put a kiddo in a carrier. The way up isn’t like climbing a mountain or anything, but it is an uphill hike and wee kids may need some extra pauses or carry time. It’s well worth it though. Have a great trip and let me know how it goes!


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