Sometimes it only takes one reason to visit a particular stop along the road. Something special, something worth diverting off the path, an opportunity too good to miss. An experience you know full well will be one of the greatest memories you will have during your time there. So what was this special phenomenon that brought me to the city of Nara? Simple; deer.
Deer?! I hear you say. What in the almighty fuck is so special about a paranoid, jumpy, bolting-the-fuck-out-of-dodge, watch from 100 meter away deer? The 4-legged Bambis abundant throughout the world would not normally catch my attention, but this group of deer are different. These delicate creatures are unique in the fact that you’re able to stand within a yard of them without the slightest bit of hesitation. Pretty quirky in of itself, however that isn’t the extent of their appeal, not what makes them truly extraordinary. True to Japanese fashion of incomparable politeness and respect, these deer will bow before you.
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At this time I was still deep into my 5-week long hostel work back in Kyoto. Luckily the city of Nara is only a quick hop-skip and a jump away from the ancient capital, the perfect distance for a short day-trip. Following a quick subway and an adjoining train, within an hour and a half I arrived in the heart of Nara to begin my hunt for the deer.
A Day With the Deer
A couple of minutes walk away from the subway station you’re greeted by the sight of a group of confident deer that line the pavements and the surrounding greenery. They weren’t contained in any way, they were free to roam the entire city as they pleased. So much so that road-signs posted around warned of potentially crossing deer. Though they had total freedom, they all collected in the area that surrounded Nara Park. They knew that was the prime location to hang out. This is where generous humans would gather and more than likely came stocked with a fresh supply of snacks that they craved for.
The most surprising things about the whole experience is the complete lack of fear that these deer had. How they would fearlessly approach each individual that passed to investigate what goodies they might be hiding. Unexpected from an animal which are normally so skittish and jumpy to the slightest crack of a branch, here they couldn’t care less. That was until they heard the crackling of plastic. They knew food was imminent.
Initially, the deer weren’t enormously affectionate. They would very happily approach to investigate, seeing what kind of snacks the next passing human might have on them. As soon as they realised they had nothing to offer then they quickly lose interest. However, upon discovering you were a reliable source of food, they very eagerly befriended you.
A potential meal means they start hounding you, encircling you within a crowd of inquisitive noses, with the more confident amongst them attempting to stick their heads into your bags or nipping at your loose hanging clothes. Deer that were once playing hard to get suddenly become ones hard to get rid of. So much so that the growing crowd begin fighting amongst themselves to be the sole recipient of your food. Often the dominant male would come on top with the loser whining as they retreated in defeat. Though its not much of a fight, not the thunderous charged butting of heads. Rather they just lean their heads towards each other in attempts of intimidation.
This is a similar technique employed on you as the greedy amongst them begin to get inpatient. They’ll softly nudge you with their heads trying to get your attention, attempting to squeeze some more munch out of you. A bit of consistent shooing and they eventually give up. Despite that, they’re not aggressive in the slightest, just persistent. Even less of a threat when you notice each deer has had their antlers cut off an filed down smooth, which is a completely painless process for the deer and safer for the public they surround.
So, what to feed them? Surrounding the park you’ll find merchants selling what appear to be crackers which are intended for the deer. Naturally they’ve come to recognise them and will very gladly gulp them down at any given opportunity. The issue is they’re not exactly cheap, and neither do you get too many. Kind of a rip-off really. However, my cheap, sharp-minded self prepared a big bag of chopped carrots which they were just as happily interested in. If anything I was giving them something different for once.
So if walking freely amongst the deer wasn’t fascinating enough, there was a particularly unique touch to the deer here, one that has made them famous throughout the world. I guess you could easily find approachable deer in petting zoos and the like, however none share the same talent as the deer of Nara. Namely these deer, almost as if to echo the incomparable politeness and respect of the Japanese citizens themselves, the deer bow before you. As if you’re a princess in a Disney movie, they stand politely before you and bow perfectly in unison as you do.
An enormous proportion of my day was spent performing this trick with the deer throughout the park. Though they may not be totally compliant at first, requiring a bit of coaxing and practice. However as soon as they realise they get rewarded for their actions, then it’s a breeze. So much so they begin bowing to you before you even offer them anything, often bowing multiple times like a headbanger in a Metallica concert, in the hopes that they’ll get get something for it.
Of course they’re doing this for one sole reason: to get some food out of it. But holy shit, these deer are bowing to me!! How mad is that?! Just after a short interaction it’s as if I had been training them for years. You have these gorgeous little creatures eating out of the palm of your hand (literally) and become your little faithful friend for the day. Easily one of my biggest highlights during my time in Japan.
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.