So, do they, or do they not like to take onsen baths?
The Nikko natives are quick to tell you that they do, and if it’s really cold outside, sometimes they will even venture into human territory to try human outdoor onsen. But if you start asking if they’ve actually seen a monkey sitting in their backyard tub, they will tell you that no, they haven’t. But they have a friend (relative, co-worker, neighbor) who’s seen it.
Though it’s been repeated over and over that these monkeys (Japanese Macaque, Snow Monkey, Nihon zaru) like to lounge in hot springs, the first time when such behavior was actually observed by scientists was in 1963 in Nagano. And even then, the situation was not accidental, but carefully engineered by researchers to get the monkey into the water. The monkey decided that sitting in hot water on a cold winter day was a much better alternative than freezing her butt off in the woods, and soon other members of her monkey troop joined her.
In Nikko you will see many signs admonishing you not to feed the monkeys. But when it’s really cold and they are obviously hungry enough to get on the road to bother the passing motorists for a bit of food, it’s hard to resist.
Unfortunately, that teaches them bad habits and causes problems for the city of Nikko. To deal with the monkeys, the city officials thought up a volunteer program when a couple of times a year the residents have to scare the monkeys away. You can’t shoot them (protected species), so the volunteers use noisemakers to drive them away. But the monkeys, being smart and adaptable, figured out this trick very quickly. They’re not afraid of humans, they’re not afraid of cars, and when they’re really hungry, they can be quite persistent.
So while driving around Nikko in winter, please be careful. You don’t want to hurt a hungry monkey.
Most tourists, however, come to see the carved monkeys and pay little attention to the wild ones. Actually, you’d be surprised to learn how many foreign visitors have no clue at all that monkeys live in Japan in the wild.
And this is what they come to see:
Yeah, the three wise monkeys who see no evil (Mizaru), speak no evil (Iwazaru), hear no evil (Kikazaru). In other words, stick your head in the sand and pretend that the world at large doesn’t exist. Oh, wait, ostriches do that, not monkeys. So why not ostriches on the Toshogu shrine, but monkeys? Because the Japanese word for monkey – saru (猿) sounds like an old negative verb conjugation – zaru.
And besides, three monkeys are a lot more fun to look at than one ostrich sticking its head in the sand.
Actually, there's more than three of them, but the rest isn't doing anything cute or terribly exciting: