Up close and personal

Yesterday, I got to spend a couple of hours fulfilling a goal I’ve had for as long as I can remember: getting close to monkeys in their own environment.

In short, it was fantastic.

We visited the Arishiyama monkey park to the west of Kyoto and, after a 20min hike up the side of a mountain in 28C heat, finally got to see them lolling around in the sun. It was just after feeding time, so they were mostly relaxing and grooming each other.

And completely disinterested in our arrival.


The monkey park is on a relatively flat plateau on the side of a steep mountain and the monkeys were spread out on the lawn, in the middle of the feeding area and on the roof of the visitors’ centre.

I suppose they’re so used to seeing humans arrive panting and gasping that they barely looked in our direction. After taking some initial excited photos, I sat down on one of the benches, just to watch them up close.

I saw a mother grooming one of her babies and watched as she manipulated him/her into all kinds of positions so she could rummage around in his fur. She was totally absorbed in her task, while her baby lay back like he/she was getting the pampering of his/her life. Bliss.

Two other young monkeys chased each other around, playing on some ropes and rolling around in the dust, while an older male looked on with (what I imagined was) a look of utter disdain.

After a while, we went into the visitors’ centre and I bought some chopped up apples to feed to them. You’re not allowed to bring your own food – I suppose at some point, some idiot tried to feed them a Big Mac or something – so I was more than happy to pay the equivalent of a pound to feed them by hand.

But first, another reason why I love Japan so much: we were each handed a towel from out of a fridge, so we could cool down and get refreshed. So very civilised!

There were warnings all over the place about how to interact with the monkeys, but I found them to be gentle and patient. Unlike zoos, we were behind the bars, while the monkeys hopped up to the feeding windows from outside.

Laying a piece of apple on the palm of my hand, I stretched it out to the nearest monkey, who gently picked it up and popped it into his mouth. I was amazed at how soft his fingers were and how gently and slowly he moved. He looked me in the eye as he chewed and reached out his hand for more.

I tried to share the apple pieces relatively fairly among the monkeys who could be bothered to come over, but one in particular made me laugh out loud. A very young monkey took a large piece of Apple and basically filled his mouth with it. His eyes bulged as he tried to keep it there. But he also tried to take more from me, snatching a piece from my hand before a much larger monkey could.

He was then stuck! He needed one hand to hold onto the wire of the fence and another to hold his apple. But his mouth was now full and he was unable to chew the piece he had because it was so big. He whimpered as he seemed to realise his predicament. He kept glancing at the apple in his hand and then at me.

Eventually, he dropped the apple in his hand and picked the big piece from his mouth so he could chew on it. All the time, keeping an eye on me and the plastic bag of apple pieces in my hand. A typical greedy toddler, whose eyes were bigger than his stomach. Or in this case, his mouth.

Eventually, we walked back down the trail into town, encountering some rogue monkeys on the way. They’d obviously been off on some foraging trip into the forest as they had various leaves in their mouthes.

They sat in the trees, relaxing, while others walked rpast us on their way back up to the plateau. Two strolled right past me, almost brushing my knee they were so close. I filmed a few minutes of their movements and then it was time to continue our descent.

The glass of iced mango juice I had in the cafe in town was the best I’ve ever enjoyed! The heat was intense, but I also spent the time flicking through the many photos I’d taken of my new monkey friends.

Unlike the zoos I’ve visited in the past, these monkeys were in their natural home and seemed genuinely relaxed and happy. It was an incredibly enjoyable visit and if you’re ever in a Kyoto, I’d encourage you to make the trip.

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