Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys, everywhere you look there are monkeys!
Of course, I’m talking about Takasakiyama, Beppu’s famous monkey mountain; full to the brim with one of the most Instagrammable features of Japan- Japanese macaques.
On my recent trip to Beppu, I decided to visit the park, after missing it during my first trip (apparently the monkeys don’t come down the mountain, to the park, if it’s raining!)
Haven’t heard of this place before?
It’s a natural zoo, open since 1953, attracting tourists from all over Japan and beyond to get up-close-and-personal with ‘some of the biggest troops of monkeys in the world’. The official Japan Travel site boasts that-
‘The mountain is home to an estimated population of around 1,500 Japanese macaques, also known as “snow monkeys”… [they are] separated into two groups of about 700 to 800… Each troop takes turns visiting the park, one in the morning and one in the afternoon’
So it’s safe to say you won’t be short of monkeys, especially on a day with good weather.
We were lucky enough to visit one of these days. Luckier still, it was easy to find so no shouting at Google Maps was necessary.
The monkey park sits opposite the famous aquarium Umi Tamago (which literally means sea egg!?) and parking costs around 400 yen. They also have a big car park by the aquarium too.
The ticket machines at Takasakiyama (or Mt Takasaki) are easy to find and easy to operate, with people at hand if you need any help.
When buying your ticket you decide if you want to walk up or take the monorail straight to the monkeys’ feeding area. The monorail costs an extra 110 yen for the round trip, which is less than a pound (£1) and makes the park a lot more accessible.
We decided to walk it; get the steps in and hopefully see some monkeys on the way up; so we paid 520 yen each and headed in.
According to the Japan-Guide website, you can get the ‘Monkey Marine Ticket’ combo which lets you go to the monkey park as well as the aquarium for 2470 yen (around £20). The aquarium alone is pretty expensive so I’d say the combo ticket is a good idea, I just didn’t know about it!
‘What Takasakiyama may have lacked in height, it made up for in the steepness of its slopes’
Steep it was indeed. Taking either the steps or the slope, it was going to have you a little breathless. ‘You wanted steps, you got steps!’ is what Ms Trunchbull would’ve said.
We chose the slope and the instant we started walking, we could see monkeys. They were all over the place. They walked past us on the slope, sat in lines grooming each other and hopped around in the trees above our heads.
I was so excited to be around animals again. Growing up with pets means that I became used to having animals around me. So when moving to Japan meant living without pets, I had to settle for ecstatically screeching ‘CAT!’ ‘COW!’ ‘OH MY GOD THERE’S A DOG!’ to the closest person at every opportunity.
It was understandably overwhelming, then, to be close to animals again after quite some time and we were very close and these animals were SNOW MONKEYS!
Obviously, the monkeys didn’t share my enthusiasm and, in fact, looked completely unbothered by my being there. I guessed that must just come with 70 years worth of close contact with humans and continued my climb.
It was easy to forget the slope when we got to the top and the ground flattened out, with sunlight trickling through the high trees onto sunbathing monkeys.
The first building that we passed, I later learnt, may be connected to the Buddhist temple, Manjūji Betsuin.
Passing this, you come to an open space with the main ‘feeding’ area to your left and the monorail straight past that area, with an amazing view of the coast to your right, past the steps.
All over this open space were monkeys, of all ages, lying in the sun or running all over the place.
The feeding area was busy with people taking pictures and struggling to get closer and see the monkeys. Soon after we got there, the keepers started to feed the monkeys and so even more people and monkeys came running from all angles.
We were stood a fair distance away from the crowd at this point, looking out at the sea when five monkeys caught my eye. I nudged Ste, well, clumsily pulled at his arm and we watched in awe as they effortlessly scaled the mountain, popped over the ledge and ran past us to the feeding area.
After a little more wandering ourselves, we decided to sit down, away from the crowd and the chaos.
We chatted on a big boulder near the temple building while monkeys walked past us, lay down behind us and dropped all sorts of leaves on us from the trees above. We spent quite a lot of time there before heading off, down to the aquarium.
This visit left me feeling pretty overwhelmed. I remember thinking; I’m in Japan, up a mountain, surrounded by hundreds of animals that don’t even exist naturally in my home country.
So have I convinced you to visit yet?
Maybe don’t be too hasty in your decision as after my visit to Mt Takasaki I decided to do some research. Slipping on my tensai hat, I wanted to know why, how and when the park was created and most importantly- how do the monkeys feel about it all?
The amount I found out surprised me.
As it turns out Mt Takasaki Park was the first of its kind in Japan.
According to John Knight in his work Herding Monkeys to Paradise, the mountain was originally an interest of the renowned anthropologist and founder of Japanese primatology, Junichiro Itani, before it became the interest of Tamotsu Ueda, the town mayor.
Knight explains that Ueda aimed to tackle some of the town’s issues, i.e. monkeys raiding the farmers’ crops, the town’s ageing population and everyone’s problem of money, by provisioning the Mt Takasaki macaques as a tourist attraction.
What is provisioning?
Basically, it’s feeding an animal rather than having it eating in the wild. So anything from throwing bread to ducks (if you want to feed ducks please feed them seeds- be responsible guys!), feeding the last of your lunch to the pigeons or leaving out food for stray cats in your street, that’s provisioning.
Provisioning can be used for reasons other than just feeding the starving strays, it can be used to condition animals. Think Pavlov’s Dog, except replace the dog with monkeys and instead of a bell to condition the animals, the mayor used a conch shell. Lord of the Flies ringing any bells?
An interesting anecdote I found came from the mayor’s attempt to get permission for the land from the Manjuji Temple priest, Onishi Shino.
The mayor gained this permission by convincing the priest, an animal lover, that the park was for the benefit of the animals. Having the animals as part of this attraction would protect them from the wrath of angry farmers, as a result of their crop-raiding mischief.
‘I have understood that they [the monkeys] have the Buddha’s spirit [mihotokesama no kokoro].’
‘He explains this belief by invoking the traditional imagery of death of the Buddha… in which the ‘sleeping’ (dead) Buddha appears surrounded by all manner of grieving beasts, birds and insects. For Onishi, this scene encapsulates the Buddha’s teaching that the various forms of life should be considered ‘siblings who just happen to inhabit different bodies’.’
And so, without authorisation from higher authorities in the temple and despite concerns about the monkeys ‘polluting sacred ground’, the park opened in 1953.
Onishi’s view of animals as siblings to humans is an empathetic vision arguably similar to views held by many ethical vegetarians and vegans today. Eating one’s brother wouldn’t seem right, right?
After learning of the origins I started to wonder, was Onishi’s wish fulfilled? Were the monkeys protected from harm and enjoying life in Elysium?
Hiroki Kurato, in her contribution to Anne E Russon’s book Primate Tourism, updates us on the macaques’ Happily Ever After.
It seemed that the free-range zoo was a great idea. Tourists began to flock to the once quieter town and Takasakiyama Zoo inspired the opening of 41 more free-ranging monkeys parks, within just 20 years of its own opening!
But as with all the greats, it had its flaws…
Kurita talks about the problems that come with using wild monkeys as a tourist attraction, both for the animals and the people.
One of the biggest problems came from provisioning the monkeys. As we touched on before, provisioning basically means feeding the monkeys and in this case, the monkeys were being fed a diet more nutritious than they could naturally find.
The monkeys were being spoilt on the feast of sweet potatoes and peanuts and so, naturally, the population started to swell. The forest couldn’t handle this amount of monkeys and so the monkeys started to look for food elsewhere.
You guessed it, they went back to crop-raiding. They went back to one of the issues the park was created to tackle and the reason that Onishi Shino agreed to the plans.
But this time farmers were calling not just for the culling of the monkeys. Their anger spread to demand ‘uchikorose’ and ‘bokumetsu’ of the monkeys. Uchikorose translates to beating them to death while the latter means ‘eradication’ (Knight).
Even after the park lessened the monkeys’ meals, to draw the monkeys back, the problems still came.
This time the problems were accidents. Kurita talks about accidents occurring between humans and monkeys while feeding, ultimately leading to visitor-feeding to being stopped in 1993.
Accidents seemed to be happening in multiple parks. M. Okano described macaques being run over because tourists were feeding them from cars.
And this isn’t just a Japanese problem. All over the world, there are questions raised about the ethics of animal attractions. Even my closest safari park in the UK has its problems.
Knowsley Safari Park was found to be being a little more than careless in 2011, as images were released of animal carcasses ‘left to rot by bins’.
If the accidents, destruction of forest, overpopulation and crop-raiding wasn’t enough, Myra L Shackley reminds us of the everyday problems of tourists in an animal park, like visitors deliberately teasing and disturbing animals as well as the effects of visitor noise.
So what to do?
I enjoyed the park a lot and I thought that it was a lot better for the animals to exist like this than in full captivity. I came to the park, as always with my veggie, animal lover head on and wanted to really debate this in my mind.
‘Ecotourism is considered an effective measure for promoting the conservation of Japanese macaques’
On one side, the park offers protection, as the mountain is part of the Setonaikai National Park with the macaques maintained as a ‘natural monument’.
The park also means easier research and education about the animals to visitors.
On the other hand, you have those seemingly inevitable problems that come when humans come close to nature.
‘for tourists, the camera has largely replaced the gun’
What do you think?
Is it worth the problems to give the animals some protection, or do you think humans and animals shouldn’t mix in this way?
Let me know!
Stay positive, and mindful!
Sources: Hiroki Kurita, 'Provisioning in Japanese Macaque Tourism' from Anne E Russon, Primate Tourism (2014) URL: Googlebooks John Knight, Herding Monkeys to Paradise- How Macaque Troops are Managed for Tourism in Japan (2011) URL: Googlebooks ---M. Okano, 2002- cited by both Kurita and Knight- 'osengai ni sumu' (Inhabiting a hotspring area) Myra L Shackley, Wildlife Tourism (1996) URL: Googlebooks City of Oita Official Website/ Mt Takasaki URL: Website Information on provisioning animals: URL: luminism.wordpress Primatologist, Junichiro Itani URL: Researchgate Knowsley Safari Park URL: BBC URL: The Guardian URL: The Daily Mail More information https://www.japan.travel/en/spot/699/ https://www.japan-guide.com/