Don’t be put off by the seemingly endless steps and uphill slopes that stretch on ahead of you at the foot of Iwatayama. It’s true that getting to the monkey park at the top involves a bit of a climb, but the steps look a lot worse than they are, and at only 160 meters high – about half the height of the Eiffel Tower – Iwatayama is really rather more of a hill than a mountain.
Informative signs dotted along the pathway provide a kind of monkey trivial pursuit, ensuring that by the time you get there, you know things like only the male monkeys have sharp canine teeth, but both males and females have “cushions” on their bottoms enabling them to sit down for a long time without feeling pain.
It’s an undeniable thrill when at last you approach the park and catch your first glimpse of the Japanese macaques. Unless you have done the entire climb with your eyes shut, there is simply no excuse for not knowing by this point the three golden rules of the mountain:
• Never stare at the monkeys.
• Never touch the monkeys.
• Never show the monkeys your food.
It’s not that feeding them is completely forbidden, but it has to be done a certain way. For ¥100, visitors can buy some suitable simian snacks in the main park building. But in a unique twist, at Iwatayama, it is the humans who are caged and the monkeys who are free to roam at will. They hang from the wire mesh covering the windows and reach in to take food from the captives inside. Try not to think too Planet of the Apes, as these monkeys are quite amiable. Even young children can have a go at feeding the monkeys in this way without any problems, as long as they follow the rules.
Seen close up like this, you notice just how different the macaques look from each other: “wide boy” cheeky monkeys; nervous, twitchy ones; monkeys with sad-looking eyes; cute, little ones; and big, grumpy ones with more than a passing resemblance to your Uncle Fred.
As well as the monkeys, another major attraction at Iwatayama is the very fine view of Kyoto that can be enjoyed from the observation area in front of the main building. If you ask one of the staff members politely, he or she will try to get you, the view, and a nearby monkey all aligned into a single shot. One final joy of Iwatayama is that when your visit is over and you make your way down the mountain again, you find yourself back in the middle of Arashiyama, one of the most beautiful parts of Kyoto.
Iwatayama Monkey Park
• Open: 9am–4pm
• Tel: 07-5872-0950
• Cost: Adults ¥550 (over 15 yrs); Children ¥250 (free for under 4 yrs)
• Access: Hankyu Arashiyama Stn, 5-min walk; JR Saga- Arashiyama Stn, 15-min walk; Randen (Tramway) Arashiyama Stn, 5-min walk. The entrance is well signposted and can be found near the south end of the Togetsukyo bridge.
• Website: kmpi.co.jp/english