The Deer of Nara Park

When people come to visit me in Japan, they usually have a list of things they want to do and see–and if it’s a person’s first trip to Japan, the list invariably includes a visit to Nara’s famous deer.

The deer have been featured on media around the world, from mainstream newspapers and TV programs to YouTube, blogs, and social media. In one famous video segment, the deer are shown bowing to visitors, with subtitles saying that the deer in Japan are just as polite as the people.

I’m not so sure about the “polite” part…but many of the deer will bow back, if you bow to them–they’ve learned the trick as a way to beg for “shika senbei” (deer crackers), which are sold at stands throughout the park so visitors can feed them to the deer.

The deer were already living in the place that’s now Nara Park when Kasuga Taisha (Shrine) was founded during the mid-8th century to protect the newly designated capital city. (Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan, before Kyoto, and then Edo [now called Tokyo].) According to the official history of the shrine, Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, the God of Thunder, appeared atop sacred Mt. Mikasa riding a white deer in response to prayers to protect the capital. Kasuga Taisha was built to honor him, along with three other, related Shintō deities, and the deer of Nara have been considered sacred ever since.

Given their sacred status, which ensured that no person would harm them in any way, the deer quickly became accustomed to humans. They still are, and in fact can get a little pushy if they think you’re carrying shika senbei.

(Pro tip: do NOT try to hide shika senbei in your purse or pockets. I have seen deer steal purses and rip pockets right off a pair of jeans to get the treats inside.)

That said, if you’re not carrying cookies, most of the deer are quite friendly–but still semi-wild, so they can be unpredictable, and some of them do bite, so while they’re definitely easy to touch and most of them like to be touched, use caution and common sense if you go to see them.

In the winter months, the deer grow heavy coats, which they shed when the weather warms up in spring.

They can look a little rough during shedding season.

In the summer and autumn, the deer have short, sleek coats with spots. The bucks can grow impressive sets of antlers–more impressive, when you realize those impressive racks are only one year’s growth. Priests from Kasuga Taisha go through the park and cut off the antlers every year (humanely–and it doesn’t hurt any more than cutting your fingernails); thereafter, the antlers are burned in a ritual at Kasuga Shrine, as an offering to the patron deities. Don’t feel badly for the deer: in the wild, they shed the antlers annually anyway, and the priests remove them shortly before that would naturally happen on its own.

I’ve been to Nara Park more than a dozen times, and I still love to see the deer. I don’t even mind the inevitable crowds, or the occasional greedy nudge (or nip) from behind when I’ve just bought a set of shika senbei–although I do usually scurry quickly away from the herds around the vendors in search of the more docile, less pushy deer in parts of the park less frequented by tourists. They’re always delighted to get a snack–and are usually much more polite than their gregarious brethren, whether or not they bow.

Have you been to Nara Park? Have you ever petted a deer? Would you like to?