Japan has many iconic images! Whether it’s the hectic crossroads of Tokyo or the peaceful expanses of bamboo forests and red torii gates in Kyoto, the trend-setting nation covers the whole spectrum. Japan is also home to some unique animals. Along with the one of a kind hot-spring loving snow monkeys in the mountains of Nagano, the ancient streets of Nara also plays host to another iconic animal, deer!
These aren’t the average deer you’d see prancing through the woodlands of many countries, much like everything else in Japan, they are completely unique. In true polite Japanese fashion, these deer bow to you!
It’s one of those utterly unique experiences and amongst the best highlights for any traveller in Japan. So in this article, I’ll show you everything you need to know about visiting these adorable little deer.
Table of Contents
A Brief History
These deer have lived amongst the people of Nara for over 1,000 years! According to legend, when the city was first formed, the people of Nara sought protection for their new capital. The lightning god Takemikazuchi responded to their prayers and rode towards Nara on the back of an enormous white deer before enshrining himself in Kasuga Taisha Shrine. Today the shrine is within the greater complex of Nara Park where the deer roam freely.
Since then people deer were seen as sacred animals and helpers of God. They were always fiercely protected, and you could even be put to death for killing one! Though today they’re no longer seen as sacred, the 1,200 or so deer that roam the park are still considered natural monuments.
Where Are They?
These deer are found in the city of Nara, in the Kansai Region of Japan. The most common way to get there is either via Kyoto to the North or Osaka to the West.
How To Get There?
From Osaka take the Kintetsu-Nara Line from Osaka-Namba Station for ¥570 on a 40-minute journey. You can also take the Yamatoji Line from JR Osaka Station for about 30 to 45 minutes. You can use your JR Pass on this line.
From Kyoto, take the JR Nara Line from Kyoto Station which takes 45-60 minutes (depending on whether its a rapid or local train) and costs ¥690. That route is covered by the JR Pass. Otherwise, you can take the Kintetsu-Nara Line which takes about 35 minutes from Kintetsu Kyoto Station.
Where To Find Them?
The deer could actually be found anywhere in the city as they’re able to roam completely free! Either way, they still tend to hang around Nara Park naturally. From the train station, whether its the JR Station or Kintetsu-Nara Station, it’s just an easy straight line walk East until you start seeing them!
The deer can also be found roaming about Todai-ji Temple, and further afield in the Kasuga Forest and amongst the long grasses of Mount Wakakusa.
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What to Do?
Instead of having to spot these normally nervous animals from a distance, you’re able to walk right up to these deer. They’ve become so comfortable amongst humans that they now see tourists as a source of food and will happily come up to investigate what you have to offer!
Can You Feed Them?
Yes, you can! Dotted around the park are several stalls selling “deer crackers” or “shika senbei”. These little crackers are specially designed to fit in with the deer’s diet. You can buy 10 of them for ¥200. A portion of the profits also goes towards protecting the deer and the park itself!
Be warned, you’ll become very popular once the deer see you’re holding! You’ll quckly be crowded by hungry little mammals trying to get fed, and your crackers won’t last very long!
Can I Feed Them My Own Food?
You must be careful and use a bit of common sense, but yes you can. The crackers may not be that expensive, but they vanish pretty quickly thanks to the greedy little deer. Plus, after a full day feeding on them, they won’t be as interested in them later in the day!
Obviously, some things should never be fed to the deer! You can’t feed them “human” food! Cookies, candies and crisps surprisingly don’t fit into the deer’s diet. In fact, it could be lethal to them as their sensitive digestive systems just can’t handle it.
But of course, deer crackers aren’t the only thing they eat! Deer usually eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, such as apples, grapes, cherries, pears and carrots (which is what I used!). If you insist on feeding them yourself, then be careful what you give and only give them a little bit of it.
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Are They Dangerous?
These animals have been living amongst people for centuries, and are totally comfortable when we’re around. They’re as tame as a wild animal can be! All the deer have even had their antlers removed (don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt them!) both for the public’s safety and the park itself.
That being said, these are still wild animals, so they can get aggressive, particularly if they’re being teased. The deer will also crowd around you as soon as they know food is on offer and may start getting grumpy if you don’t give them the goods. You might have your clothes or bags nibbled on for it!
How Do You Get Them to Bow?
Do these deer really bow? Yes, they do, it’s the whole reason they’re famous in the first place! The deer have learned to bow as a way of getting humans to feed them, which has worked very well for them!
There’s actually a proper routine to feed the deer. First, hold the cracker above their head which they should bow to. After that hold the cracker behind your back which should make them bow a second time. Then lastly hold it out in front of them for one last bow, after which you can reward them.
Of course, that long drawn routine isn’t necessary. Most of the older deer will bow once you do, while others will just start bowing to get your attention, and more importantly your food!
A Welsh university drop-out on a mission to travel the world for as little money as possible. My adventures have taken me through over 30 countries across Europe, Asia and Oceania, and the list keeps on growing! From classic backpacking to working and volunteering, I have found all sorts of ways to maintain a life on the road.