They hunker down. Watching. Waiting.
On a rock ledge, a baby sprawls on his belly playing with a silvery round stone. Bright golden eyes follow the stone as it passes from one paw to the other. A furry little arm stretches wide and suddenly the stone tumbles over the edge of the table. His tiny pink face flashes dismay, and Iâ€™m tempted to retrieve his toy. Then I remember the warning: do not interfere with the animals in the preserve.
This is the Mount Takasaki wild monkey park for Macaques near the town of Oita City, Japan. Not found in many guidebooks, itâ€™s an island filled with over 1,700 monkeys. Not a zoo. No cages. No restraining bars. No moats or walls. What a delight to see these creatures running freely in their own natural habitat.
In February, itâ€™s a chilly monorail ride up the mountain to the feeding and research area. Wintery gray spikes of leafless trees peek out through the forest that smells of pine and camphor.
Hopping off the train, I walk past the low wooden buildings to a dusty stone courtyard. Monkeys sit on the rooftops and eaves, looking like miniature gargoyles. In the yard is a liberal sprinkling of monkeys, as far as the eye can see.
Theyâ€™re so tame, and each one has its own personality. I want to run my hand over shiny brown fur and chuck their little pink chins.
An adult male casually strolls by on all fours. His soft paw grazes my shoe. He blinks at me, and then jumps onto a low grey rock. Legs tucked under his red butt, arms folded at the wrists to keep his clawed fingers warm, he sits idly chewing a single camphor leaf.
Other monkeys sit in twos or threes, picking through each otherâ€™s fur and looking for tasty little bugs to snack on. Itâ€™s their way to socialize and stay connected.
A few steps further, I hold my breath â€“ can I really be standing just inches away from a lone baby crouched in the yard? Heâ€™s looking up at his mother swinging on a coiled vine a few feet away. As little as he is, he wonâ€™t frighten away, since none of the monkeys are fearful of humans. They have been on this island for 450 years and feel safe here.
Uncoiling a green hose, a groundskeeper begins to spray down the dusty yard. Thatâ€™s the signal for the monkeys to climb down from their perches and scamper to the center of the yard. Taking little notice of visitors, they watch him expectantly. The clock edges toward 2:30 pm.
Suddenly, from a breach in the rocky retaining wall, a second keeper arrives.
The park explodes in a flurry of monkey chatter, thundering little feet and a blur of monkey fur. The keeperâ€™s gloved hand pulls a simple 2-wheeled metal cart, three sides of which are lined with tall sheets of plywood. As he races across the lot, more than 500 monkeys spring into action chasing after the raw potatoes spilling out the back. Macaques shove and snatch, shriek and claw. Competition is fierce. The screech and chatter crescendos to a roar. The oldest and strongest grab handfuls of potatoes, while juveniles and females fight for the smaller bits. Babies, who suckle for over a year, cling to their mothersâ€™ backs, lest they get trampled in the fray. In winter, this may be the one meal they get for the day, if they are quick and agile.
Cameras snap and flash trying to catch every second, every movement of this unforgettable spectacle.
One blink and I would have missed it. Before the sprayed pavement dries, monkeys disappear into the forest, treasured spuds in hand. Reluctantly I look around. Theyâ€™re gone. All gone. It is over.
Riding the monorail cab down the grassy brown mountainside, I replay the images over and over in my head. I treasure this sunny afternoon as one of the great unexpected delights of my travels.
Mt. Takasaki National Park, Oita City, lies in the northeastern part of the island of Kyushu, Japan. The park is open from 8:30 am â€“ 5:00 pm. Feeding time is at 2:30 pm. Admission is 500 yen (about $5 US) for adults and 250 yen for children. Tel (097-534-6111). To reach the park, cross the walking bridge that connects the island to the town and then board the monorail to the feeding area.