Mt. Takao: Snow Monkeys and Shrines

I arrived at Mt. Takao’s monkey park just in time to watch an exciting part of the day for the troop: lunch.

One of the keepers entered the exhibit with a bucket of seeds, and this little guy decided he wanted a ride:

Mt. Takao snow monkey rides a keeper
A juvenile snow monkey at Japan’s Mt. Takao hops on a keeper’s shoulder.

After a few minutes of snatching up seeds, the little monkey decided he liked the keeper’s hat, so he helped himself to it:

My. Takao snow monkey steals hat
A young snow monkey hides from one of his keepers after running off with her hat.

The keeper couldn’t get the monkey to give up the hat, so she called in reinforcements. For the next few minutes, two keepers tried to grab a hat from one monkey hiding in a den with five exits.

It was like wack-a-mole as his little face kept popping out of the various holes only to beat a hasty retreat and try for another when one of the keepers spotted him.

Eventually they did get the hat back after the prankster grew bored.

Snow monkey baby and older sibling
A weeks-old snow monkey baby wants to play with her older sibling, who’s picking seeds off the ground.

Snow monkeys are macaques, just like rhesus monkeys, bonnets and long-tails. What makes them unique is the fact that they are the northern-most, coldest-dwelling non-human primates on the planet.

No other monkey or ape can tolerate the extreme cold like Japanese macaques. Most people have seen images of them in snowy Nagano, where they bathe in hot springs during the deep chill and sleep in tightly-packed “group hugs” to share body heat.

Japanese macaques live in matriarchal societies. Each troop is headed by an alpha and a matriarch. Troops have strict hierarchies, and rank is matrilineal — a monkey’s standing in the troop depends on who his or her mother is.

Females stay in their maternal troops for life, while males are driven out by the alpha and his lieutenants on the cusp of adulthood, usually around six or seven years old.

This has the benefit of removing potential challengers to the throne as well as preventing inbreeding. The ousted males will spend their next few years trying to prove themselves to new troops, or decide to start their own.

I spotted the group’s alpha in the most well-shaded corner of the enclosure, attended to by three lesser-ranked monkeys who were grooming his fur. Grooming is a big deal in macaque society — it’s one of their primary social activities, where relationships are forged and problems smoothed out.

It pays to be king: The alpha always eats first, has first claim to choice spots and first crack at propagating his DNA.

Also present were two nursing moms with infants. Macaques, especially Japanese and rhesus monkeys, are extraordinarily dedicated mothers.

Japanese macaques mom and her baby
A snow monkey mom encourages her baby to take a few steps.

Babies spend almost the entirety of their first six to eight months of life clinging to their mothers by clutching their fur. As the babies become more ambulatory, their mothers gently nudge them to crawl, to take their first steps or climb their first obstacle.

Upon success, the babies will hop back into their mothers’ arms. Life continues that way for several more months until the babies are about a year old and start to venture further from their moms. They continue to nurse for up to two years.

Japanese macaque and baby
A patient mother encourages her weeks-old baby to climb.

After the impromptu monkey show, I met up with my brother and we made our way up mountain toward several shrine complexes and temples.

Mt. Takao, Tokyo, Japan
Visitors make their way toward a shrine on Mt. Takao.

Mt. Takao tops out at 1,965-ft, and the ascent to its peak is peppered with mixed Buddhist-Shinto shrines. They’re the real deal, with centuries-old woodwork and artifacts that date back even further.

Each shrine in the country has its own unique stamps and calligraphic symbols. Visitors can buy blank books and collect stamps and calligraphy from each shrine they visit.

In this photo, a woman paints calligraphy onto a blank page with precise brush strokes:

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Further uphill are the temples:

Woman in prayer
The shrines and temples aren’t just part of history, they’re sites of religious importance.
Buddha statues
Statues of Buddha on tall plinths line a path adjacent to a medium-size temple

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