One of the highlights of my travels in Japan was a visit to the Jigokudani (Hell Valley) Monkey Park deep within the mountains outside of Nagano. Since 1963, wild Japanese macaques have visited the park from their homes amid the snowy mountain peaks to bathe in the volcanic hot spring waters. Author, Hiroko Yoda, has likened them to "tiny, furry versions of salarymen" making their daily commute.
I was amazed by the human-like nature of their interactions, as well as their social relationships and behaviors. Clear hierarchies of adults mellowly ate, groomed and bathed, while rambunctious youths played and explored among the autumn foliage. I was also quite intrigued by the seemingly complete indifference that the snow monkeys displayed toward people. As we were informed that macaque etiquette considers it rude to stare or approach uninvited, perhaps this behavior is simply a show of respect. It would seem a fitting echo of such a defining characteristic of Japanese culture.
The rare opportunity to be so close to these amazing creatures and glimpse a life so foreign and yet so familiar characterized much of my travels through Japan.