​Japan's snow monkeys in the viewfinder

Japan's snow monkeys basking in hot springs 03:37

There's MONKEY BUSINESS aplenty to be found in a valley in Japan. Seth Doane has sent us a "Postcard from Nagano":

Really, who could refuse a steaming-hot bath on a cold winter's day? Not these snow monkeys, who come down from the mountains of Nagano, Japan, seeking warmth ... and, as you might imagine, plenty of humans come seeking them.

Doane made the trek though a thick forest of Japanese cedar along with a group of photographers led by Mark Hemmings.

"I'm not so much a wildlife photographer per se, but I really like photographing monkeys because they have such human characteristics," he said.

Hemmings' day job takes him around the world shooting commercials. But for a decade now, he has also been leading photography tours. One of the highlights of his Japan itinerary, of course, is seeing these snow monkeys, a.k.a. Japanese macaques.


"I think you could tell a story just by the expression on this monkey's face," he told Doane.

This area is called jigokudani, or "Hell Valley," because of the sulfurous, steaming hot springs bubbling underground. The nearby town is known for its onsen, or hot baths, which evidently were drawing more than just tourists.

So, to avoid scaring off those who actually paid to use them, a "monkeys-only" pool was created. Throw in a little barley to sweeten the deal and voila! -- you get bathing monkeys.

American Philbert Ono grew up in Hawaii and now lives in Japan. He joined Hemmings' tour.

"I've never seen it, and I live here," he said. "I figure this year, the Year of the Monkey, is the best time to see it."

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Shutterbugs visit among the hot springs-basking snow monkeys of Nagano. CBS News

Yes, it's the Year of the Monkey on the lunar calendar, and that means monkey-themed anything is a big deal in this part of the world. There are monkey cakes, even special orchids on display that really resemble monkeys. But to celebrate, it's hard to beat a trip here.

Teachers Robin and Matt Luther from Milwaukee, who first saw snow monkeys in National Geographic," were on the tour. "They have it made; they've got the life," Matt said.

"We see them relaxing and doing something that we enjoy doing," Ruth added.

These primates prefer to bathe during inclement weather, and the snow, said Hemmings, makes the perfect backdrop.

"Right now we have snow falling, we have overcast skies, and that produces a nice, soft appearance for the face, for the monkey face," Hemmings said. "And plus, because these are snow monkeys, we want snow! You gotta have snow!"

Monkeys are sacred in some circles here, tied to Japanese Shinto-Buddhism. Some say they protect against demons or disease.

In real life, they seem most focused on grooming -- scraping-off lice eggs, to be exact, which sounds a tad less mythical.

But there's no doubt, they are pretty cute. And Hemmings' photographs are almost like human portraiture. "The human face tells so much with just the smallest amount of change in the muscle structure," he said. "And you can see that in these monkeys as well."

It's almost as though the monkeys are looking back at the shivering tourists questioning evolution -- after all, who looks more content at this very moment?

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Snow monkeys, a.k.a. Japanese macaques, bask in the hot springs of Nagano, Japan. Mark Hemmings


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