A 30-minute train ride from central Nagoya takes you to the city of Inuyama in northwestern Aichi, where the rich natural surroundings seem to make the sun shine a litter brighter and the air feel a little cleaner and crisper. Inuyama is part of the Hida-Kiso National Park and has a wealth of natural and historical sightseeing assets. Among the best known are the boat ride down the rapids of the scenic Kiso River, which forms the city's northern border with Gifu Prefecture, and Inuyama Castle, a national treasure built 450 years ago.
Cultural facilities also abound among the city's rolling hills. The Museum Meiji-Mura showcases architectural treasures and other artifacts from the Meiji era (1868-1912); Little World is an outdoor collection of buildings and ethnological materials from around the globe; and Yuraku-en houses several historically significant buildings from the early days of the tea ceremony, including Jo-an, a tea arbor that has been designated a national treasure. Not the least of these is Japan Monkey Park, a recreational and educational facility for the entire family.
A four-minute ride on the monorail from Inuyama Yuen Station on the Meitetsu Inuyama Line lands you in the middle of the 500,000-square-meter hillside park, just where it splits into two; to the west lies an amusement park, while on the east is a unique zoo devoted exclusively to primates.
Kids naturally seek out the amusement zone first. It contains 32 rides and attractions, such as a merry-go-round and roller coaster. There is also a large Ferris wheel that overlooks the city of Inuyama and a slow-moving rail car that transports you to the zoo section. There are so many things to do and see that parents have a hard time keeping up with the kids and making sure they have admission coupons handy.
The park also hosts a variety of events all year round, including shows and exhibits for kids featuring their favorite cartoon and TV characters. "My daughter really loves it here, so we wind up coming at least two or three times a year," a happy-looking mother explained. It appears that most of the 1 million people who pass by the gates of Japan Monkey Park every year are repeat visitors.
Squirrel monkeys are allowed to scamper about freely.
The other half of the park is devoted to humankind's closest kin. There are 1,000 or so apes and monkeys at the zoo from around the world, and it is the only place in Japan where 13 of the approximately 100 species found there can be seen, including the proboscis monkey. The animals and displays are looked after by the Japan Monkey Centre, a foundation that publishes the highly respected journal Primates.
For visitors, though, the best thing about the zoo is that they can get close to the animals. A newly built section allows monkeys to roam freely, and it has become an immensely popular attraction.
At the squirrel monkey island, primates small enough to stand on the palm of one's hand can be seen jumping to and from handrails and scurrying past visitors' feet to drink water. The friendly, lovable monkeys are among the park's most adored residents.
At a valley housing a subspecies of the Japanese macaque indigenous to the southern island of Yakushima, the monkeys entertain visitors by uncannily imitating human gestures, like huddling around a bonfire and ringing a bell. Children in particular find them fascinating, and many become engrossed in watching their antics.
"With ecological concerns becoming more important," a zoo keeper commented, "and we adopt lifestyles that are more attuned to nature, we'll probably be learning a lot more from our primate siblings."
As winter gives way to spring, the cherry trees on the grounds of Japan Monkey Park will begin to bud, and by April, the park should become awash in pink with the flowering of cherry blossoms.
(Photos by Hans Sautter, Text by Setsuko Matsuda)