Since its establishment in 1964, the Jigokudani Yaen-koen has been popular for viewing the Japanese macaques, commonly known as the snow monkeys, up close. Thousands of people from all over the world have visited Jigokudani Yaen-koen, and, in 2007, award-winning photographer Jasper Doest spent over seven weeks with these Japanese macaques, watching their behavior and getting to know them on an individual basis. In 2016, Doest will be the photo expert on a National Geographic Expedition to photograph Japan’s winter wildlife, including these Japanese macaques.
Jigokudani Yaen-koen is located in the Valley of Yokoyu River which takes its water from Shiga-Kogen of the Jyoshinetsu-Kogen National Park in the northern part of Nagano prefecture. Not so long ago, the Japanese macaques which live in these snow covered mountains of Jigokudani Yaen-koen discovered the strategy of staying warm in the natural hot springs. In the early 1960s, a very young monkey accidentally learned to take an open-air bath at a local hostel. Other monkeys gradually started behaving in the same manner. Local citizens built an open-air bath as the monkeys’ private onsen (Japanese hot spring) because it is unfavorable from a hygiene standpoint if monkeys use the same bath as humans. Since then monkeys inherited the behavior of bathing. Now, only some decades later, they not only bathe on a daily basis, these highly intelligent monkeys seem to have adapted to this aquatic environment. While many of the adaptations do not appear to have a survival purpose (as in Darwin’s evolution theory), whole troops of Japanese macaques engage in the activity as a social process.
“Although I believe there is a certain risk to an anthropomorphic approach when photographing animals, there are many similarities between humans and these Japanese macaques,” Doest said. “And this almost anthropomorphic series of emotional portraits is a way to give a voice to those who can’t speak our language and are often misunderstood.”