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Monkeys and Japan

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08 January 2017
The red-faced macaques in the onsen of Jigokudani Park
The red-faced macaques in the onsen of Jigokudani Park


Japan is lovely. Just as I imagined, its landscapes, contrasts and elegance. Charming and sightly. Since I was a young girl, I had always dreamed of visiting Japan, but had first travelled to several other countries, mainly to appease, but eventually cultivating, my nostalgia for Africa.

Everything is totally different in Japan. Everybody is polite, honest and super-organised; it is a highly developed State that is extremely clean and free of smog, which shows respect towards other individuals and the environment.

There are meditative and frescoed temples, and even green areas tucked between the skyscrapers. There seems to be no hint or sign of crime; everyone leaves their bicycle unattended and unchained, often with personal or purchased items in the basket; while others go as so far as to leave fully laden backpacks dangling from the handrails of a station to avoid clutter while running an errand.

Totally a whole different world from that of Italy, one that is highly technological and very reassuring in many ways that puts an entirely different spin on hospitality.

As a psychotherapist, my field goes beyond human primates - our species -  and flows into non-human primates- I have had the opportunity to experience the latter in many rehabilitation centres and facilities around the world. I have worked to help them in Europe, Asia and especially in Africa; but also when travelling for pleasure, I often seek encounters with them in nature or in captivity. So while in Japan how could I pass up the primatological icons of the place?!

Mothers hold embraced their children to mend them from the icy wind and from the snow
Mothers hold embraced their children to mend them from the icy wind and from the snow

There include the well-known Japanese macaques, especially those found bathing in the mountain park of Jigokudani, such as the renown chimpanzee Ayumu with Prof. Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University Research Institute. I had to see the largest primate Biopark in the world. Given the circumstances, I had high expectations frankly.

While visiting streets basting modern architectures, temples, castles and green parks, I wondered, "what images will fill my eyes after such great beauty and vanguard?" Well, it was then time of the proud red-face macaques in the onsen, which are natural pools of warm, clear water. These creatures tend to snub man. Both warm steam and chilling winds and snow envelope them. The females protected their younglings and the whole group, keeping watch over it.

The species is rather aggressive and there are many individuals here that have some form of injury. Not all, but only the highest in rank, can access the refreshing waters; others must remain exposed to the cold outside temperatures. Mothers tightly clutch their younglings to keep them warm. Their discontent with the humans who approach them to take pictures was unmistakable, but at the same time they did not seem particularly stressed by these interferences, which were not too numerous given that the place was pleasant but really cold.

I experienced the hot onsen and the temperature of the snowy wind, and I also had the pleasure of being joined by a female macaque while bathing. Yes, there are onsen reserved for monkeys, others reserved for our species, and only one that allows access to both. I obviously booked it before leaving Italy.

The macaques of Iwatayama Park seem stressed from the presence of the visitors
The macaques of Iwatayama Park seem stressed from the presence of the visitors

After having taken in the sight of the Jigokudani macaques, at times raw though often poetic, I next headed to the Arashiyama Hill, Iwatayama Park, where the macaques live free with an entire wooded hill at their disposal. As I arrived, I soon realised that the place is quite touristy, despite the long climb that may be a deterrent. No monkeys along the path, even though it ran entirely through the woods; okay I thought, they  have ample space at their disposal and will not easily come right near the road used by visitors. But I dis not think there were any fruit trees and didn't know if the ones I saw had any edible leaves or berries; certainly there was grass, which is edible, but not much.

I finally reached my destination on top of the hill, from which a beautiful view over the city of Kyoto can be had. The sight to behold is quite a sad one: several macaque monkeys are clearly stressed by the presence of visitors, so much so that there were numerous individuals that seemed to suffer from dermatitis or had patches of bare skin exposed. They begged for food from the visitors, who could buy it in small bags and feed it to them through the grates of the only room in this one central plaza. Only the highest in the hierarchy had the authority to take food, and even trying to toss some to the others was risky, aside from being prohibited, as it could cause skirmishes.

The fact that smoking was allowed is truly ghastly, right in the middle of the central plaza, home to macaques, while in Japan it is prohibited unless you are in a special smoking room.

Japan Monkey Centre, several monkeys all together in tiny cages, old and smelly
Japan Monkey Centre, several monkeys all together in tiny cages, old and smelly

I felt reassured to see only about thirty macaques, while there should be about 130 in the park; this means that the others were out and about, hopefully in a cheerful mood. I was also glad at what happened as I headed back down the road to leave. I walked the short way back when a young macaque launched an attack at me by leaping on the branches above my head, shaking them vigorously and screaming. I looked at him and greet with deference; well, well, a show of strength and pride.

This visit left me with some qualms about the goodness of what still remained to be seen, as the most touristy place was still on my agenda. The Japan Monkey Centre should be the largest primate Biopark in the world, for over 67 species of non-human primates.

Just one day went by before I found myself saying "how right the feeling in my gut was!".

Yes, because I was taken aback to see a gorilla, a social and emotional creature like all primates, alone in a practically empty room. Then there were the depressed eyes of a mangy chimpanzees as it sat crumpled in on itself in a corner, and several other monkeys together in tiny, old and stinky cages. These are often dark little rooms, which in some cases are less than two meters wide and crammed with primates.

Some of the remarkable structures, instead, were quite the opposite: such as the area of the Long-Tailed Macaques, the Japanese macaques, with an enormous scaffolding structures layered on floors, without bars and protected against close contact with visitors, the futuristic structure with elevated walkways and sphere for the gibbons to climb on and the small areas of  the lemurs and squirrel monkeys that are green and without bars.

The cutting edge structures leave only room for praise, while the dramatic anachronism of the others are just plain disconcerting. I think that the progress, hospitality and respect of the Japanese must account for these creatures, our intelligent and conscientious brothers, as soon as possible. I am left wondering what plan for improving the living conditions and structures of the less fortunate guests does the esteemed Director Prof. Matsuzawa have in mind and long will it take to see the light?


Japan Monkey Centre, the area of Macaca fascicularis, the Japanese macaques, a futuristic structure with elevated walkways and sphere in which to climb for some of the gibbons
Japan Monkey Centre, a chimpanzee crumpled in on itself in a corner
Japan Monkey Centre, the area of Macaca fascicularis, the Japanese macaques, a futuristic structure with elevated walkways and sphere in which to climb for some of the gibbons Japan Monkey Centre, a chimpanzee crumpled in on itself in a corner


Mariangela Ferrero is Psychotherapist and ethologist expert in non-human primates


 

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