Having grown up in northern Michigan, I have always had a love-hate relationship with deer. On the one hand, I know many people who have totaled their cars, severely injured themselves, and even unfortunately lost their lives because deer in Michigan haven’t quite mastered how not to jump in front of moving vehicles. On the other hand, deer are so cute, and the fawns that like to snuggle up at the edge of our property in the springtime make me almost forgive deer for all the trouble they cause us here – almost.
When I heard of the deer park in Nara, where deer many Japanese people consider to be sacred animals gambol about freely, I was intrigued. When I learned that they were tame enough to pet and feed, and that they bow to request treats from people visiting the park, I knew I absolutely had to see it for myself. Normally I would never want to interfere with, bait, or feed wild animals in order to photograph them (the deer in Nara are indeed wild animals, although they do receive routine veterinary care), but since these deer have come to depend on people feeding them, and are quite tame, I figured there wouldn’t be any harm in visiting and feeding a few little does.
In addition to the beautiful deer that roam Nara, there is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site in town, comprised of 8 beautiful temples and shrines, a 5 story pagoda, the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, and a few ruins. The food in Nara is also top notch, and the views outside of town are absolutely breathtaking.
Where to Eat
We loved dining at Syoka restaurant in Nara. Located inside an old Samurai house, and decorated in traditional Japanese style, Syoka was where we enjoyed a beautiful Te-ori sushi meal, which means we were presented with a plethora of locally sourced, organic, and seasonal fish, vegetables, and condiments to make our own custom sushi rolls. The experience was tremendously enjoyable, and it was one of my favorite meals I’ve ever had. Just be sure to wash your hands after touching the deer – these rolls are eaten with the hands instead of chopsticks. Check out my full review here.
Where to Stay
We visited Nara as a day trip from Kyoto, so we were only in town for about 14 hours. However, during this time I asked around and found that one of the most highly recommended places to lodge in Nara is Noborioji Hotel Nara, that has both excellent food and excellent views of the city. We talked to around a dozen or so people and they almost all recommended this hotel!
Nara Deer Park
Nara Deer Park is where more than 1,500 wild (yet relatively tame) deer wander about freely. These deer, called Shika, are believed to have been messengers of the god Takemikazuchi, who is allegedly enshrined at Kasuga Shrine in Nara. People were always excited to see the deer, as they were believed to be an omen of good fortune and favor from their local deity, and bowed low to the deer to show appreciation for the supposed favor, and often gave the deer snacks. It was, and still is, a crime to harm or kill the deer since they are considered to be sacred, which explains their explosive population growth. Over the years, the deer learned that people who bowed to them had food, and learned to bow in return, or in anticipation of food. This is how the deer came to be famous for bowing to visitors.
If you’re driving in Nara, which I strongly caution you against doing, be aware that the deer here wander into the streets, walk in the roads, and jump around playfully quite often. Surprisingly, a number of them have learned to use crosswalks, which was fascinating to see.
Biscuits to feed the deer can be purchased for ¥150 for 5, and are a fun way to entertain the deer, and get closer to them. We fed yearling deer that were small, and a bit more reserved than the much lager and older deer. This was because they weren’t likely to be aggressive, and stayed farther away from us. Plus, when we fed them, the other deer couldn’t walk over fast enough to try to take food from the little deer, and we never had to deal with swarms of deer following and bowing to us.
If you do decide to feed the deer, don’t make them bow more than once, or else they might bite at you. I didn’t try to get them to bow to me, because I was worried they might try to bite my face if I put it too close to their mouths (they are wild animals after all), and I didn’t pet them. There was one young deer that was very friendly and put her head under my hand and let me gently pat her head a few times, but I didn’t want to push my luck with her and left her alone after a moment or so.
Keep in mind that they are unpredictable animals, and you should keep an eye on any small children or nervous people you travel with. Do not feed them anything other than the deer biscuits sold in the park, because most human foods will make them sick, and the biscuits sold in the pan are made to keep the deer healthy and well nourished.
We were in Nara during the cherry blossom season, and were concerned at first to see that the deer had patchy fur, and seemed to be itching themselves against anything they could find, including people. I was worried they had fleas or ticks or even mange, but after speaking with a few different locals, they informed us that the deer were losing their winter coats, the same way dogs shed. It was then that we noticed the tufts and small piles of deer fur scattered along the streets, and stuck in the grass. If you have allergies, I don’t recommend visiting the park while they are shedding, or if you do, be sure to bring allergy medicine with you, as we saw a number of tourists sniffling and sneezing because of the deer shedding all over.
Also, I should mention that there were a lot of deer “droppings” around Nara Park, so I don’t recommend wearing nice shoes. We were able to avoid the worst of it, because as I mentioned above we sought out deer that were resting alone, and avoided the dense crowds of deer that were on Nara’s main road, so choose your path wisely, and watch where you’re walking.
Safety in Nara
Each year around 150 visitors to Nara Deer Park are injured by the deer. As I mentioned above, they are wild animals, and although they can be very sweet and fun to feed, they have been known to chase, bite, kick, and even tackle people who taunt or hurt them. To stay safe while feeding the deer, don’t taunt them with food. If you pull out food to feed them, give it to them quickly, and then raise your hands up in the air when you’ve run out of biscuits to give them. The deer have learned to back off when you put your hands up in the air. Keep your pockets zipped and store away all valuables, as the deer like to stick their noses in peoples jacket pockets in search of food. We saw someone’s ¥10,000 yen notes being devoured by a deer, and the person couldn’t get them back in time before they were swallowed up!
If you start to panic or try to run from the deer, they will chase you because they think you are playing with them, which we witnessed twice while we are there. Both people who freaked out were teenagers, and had ignored the signs about not running. As soon as they took off running, the deer followed, and more joined in until they had about 20 deer bounding after them, which obviously scared the screaming teenagers even further. Thankfully, some knowledgable people intervened and distracted the deer with biscuits while the kids ran off.
To stay safe, follow the signs that instruct visitors not to taunt the deer, pull their food away, wave it above their heads, strike the animals (it’s very sad to me that this needed to be included in the list of rules), or push them. You should also not sneak up behind them or try to scare or surprise the deer, as they may kick out or jump on you out of fear. Essentially, be kind and fair to the deer, and when you are done feeding them simply move on, and you’ll be fine. If the deer follow you at a walk, don’t be alarmed, they are just heading the same way you are.
I should hope none of my readers would ever be cruel to an animal, but just so you are aware, it is a crime to injure or kill the deer in Nara Park, and doing so carries hefty fines and up to six months in Japanese prison, which is not somewhere I’d ever like to end up.
Landmarks in Nara
Kasugayama Primeval Forest
Nara Deer Park
Nara National Museum
Day Trips from Nara
Until next time!
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