Tokyo can be overwhelming with its concrete labrynth of cafes, shopping malls, and crowds of people, however, there are many escapes and day trips that are just one Shinkansen away. Travelling with a baby presents its own challenges and our day trip to the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Japan wasn't the easiest trip, but yes, it was worth the trek.
How to get to Jigokudani Monkey Park from Tokyo
Embarking on this adventure takes some advance planning including downloading offline maps, extensively, and starting your day early enough to avoid the rush hour traffic.
We left the hotel at 6:45 AM for Tokyo Station (from The Westin hotel in Ebisu) in order to redeem our vouchers for a JR Pass, an unlimited JR Train and Shinkasen (bullet trains) ticket. The ticketing office is at the North entrance so follow signs as you weave through the hordes of commuters making their way through the station. You can only purchase a JR Pass outside of the country and you have to physically activate the pass in a local train station at a ticket counter.
We activated our passes and headed toward the Shinkansen for Nagona. This was one of the nicest and cleanest trains we have ever been on with ample leg room, even in economy. Baby had plenty of room to sit on our laps, climb on our legs and fall asleep after exerting all of his energy.
We arrived in Nagona early, thanks to baby’s 4:45am wake cycle, and spent some time strolling the food and gifts hall at the station. We bought some hot pepper flakes and had tasty mushroom and pumpkin hot buns. Express buses from Nagano station to Monkey Park only run a few times a day. Here’s a time table to help you plan your trip.
The express bus took roughly 45-50 mins and dropped us at a car park at the bottom of the snow monkey park trail. From the car park it was approximately a beautiful 1.8 km hike up to the park. We stored the stroller in a locker at Nagona station and carried baby in the carrier for the trek.
This was tough...but the weather was nice and cool. The path was fairly smooth with a few uphill battles and unfortunately a light, cold rain that showered us mid-hike.
After what seemed like an eternity, we made it to the top where the monkeys live!
This was an amazing adventure to get up close to Japanese Macaque monkeys. The monkeys crowded the walking path, babies and adults alike. They were particularly fun to watch as they jumped on each other on low-hanging branches, groomed each other and bathed in a natural hot spring.
The way back from Nagona to Tokyo was a bit of a disaster. The ticket office line was very long and we ended up losing an hour waiting for the next non-reserved train with a very tired and cranky baby. Book your return ticket upon arrival so you can go straight to the platform. We grabbed snacks from the train convenience store at 7pm to hold us over on our 2+ hour ride back to the hotel.
Traveling to Jigokudani Monkey Park with a baby
Traveling to monkey Park with a baby is not easy. It takes effort, back pain and a willingness to 'make it work.' Though we were the only ones with an infant, there were many kids on the trails from toddler and above.
One of the best things we did was leave the stroller behind at the storage lockers available at the train station for 400 yen. We took with us our Ergobaby carrier with great back support and our diaper bag filled with snacks, formula, diapers...etc. The one thing we didn't bring, that really would have been handy was a way to keep baby dry in the carrier. We faceted a cover out of our own rain coats, which sufficed due to light rain. If it was any heavier we wouldn't have been prepared and might have had to cut our journey short.
Despite the 45-minute walk through the forest, baby was wide awake through it all. It was such a great experience to share with a curious 9 month old who's first experience of enormous trees, fresh mountain air and seeing monkeys was across the world. A memory our family of three will remember for many days ahead. It may not have been easy but it was worth it.
Pro tips for visiting Jigokudani Monkey Park in October
Use the JR Pass to ride a Shinkansen to Nagano Station (bullet train)
Leave early and book roundtrip tickets
Check train and bus times ahead of time
Leave your stroller in a storage locker
Bring rain gear for everyone, wear appropriate shoes for hiking
Bring extra baby necessities in case there are train or unexpected delays