One of the things we wanted to do while we were in Japan was see the villages and islands that are full of one particular animal that you hear about but aren’t sure you can quite believe they exist. The first on our list was Nara, a village known for its friendly deer population.
From the moment we got off the train we could see that everything was deer themed, from the little man with antlers, who was apparently invented to celebrate some anniversary of the city, to deer on the lampposts there is definitely a deer theme.
We were however wrong about a couple of things before we did our research here, firstly this is a full on city rather than a village, secondly the deer don’t just wonder the streets. There are a series of parks and shrines in one part of Nara where the deer have free rein.
We arrived in Nara fairly late at night as we had wanted to make the most of our time at Himegi castle near Osaka, which I will cover in a later blog, and we didn’t see any real deer until the next day.
Once we had got ourselves up and breakfasted, we headed to the main park in Nara. We had seen a few deer en route to breakfast but had been to focused on getting food in our bellies to stop and get photos, and there were no shortage of deer to see. We saw plenty of deer on the way to the main park and plenty of tourists being accosted by them because they weren’t doing a very good job of hiding the treats.
For this reason we decided to put off buying any treats of our own till the opportune moment. As we ambled our way down to the park we saw lots of other interesting sights. The scenery itself was beautiful, I know Japan is famous for cherry blossom but the autumn colours really are fantastic. We did do a little people watching too as we saw a few wedding photographs being taken as well as every day activities like a lady sitting painting. We also passed lots of tourist shops and my husband enjoyed looking at the knives that we most definitely could not afford.
When we eventually made it to the park we saw wide open spaces filled with deer and people. I should probably mention that the deer where a lot smaller than I had been expecting. In Scotland we have mostly roe and red deer which are maybe about the height of a person, they are also much more skittish and will generally run away if they see you. The deer in Nara are apparently sika deer, and they seem to on average come up to about stomach hight and they certainly aren’t shy.
It was fairly easy to tempt a deer over by holding out your hand, even if you didn’t have food, they would come over and sniff to see if you did, they did back off pretty quickly if they found out that you didn’t have anything for them. Unfortunately we saw several groups of children using this to torment the deer, by tempting them over and then chasing after them to scare them, I was hoping some of them would get butted to teach them a lesson, but it seemed only the people with treats were getting butted.
We chose our moment to buy some treats, just after someone else had bought some and the deer had all swarmed them. We bought some and put them straight in our bag before any deer could notice. Then we went off to find a quieter bit of the park to feed the deer, hopefully without being swarmed.
Initially we chose an area which was too quiet, there were no deer around at all to notice that we had food, so we moved to a slightly less quiet spot and quickly got a few uptakers. There was one stag in particular with his antlers cut off and a scabby head who was butting all the other deer out of the way and even butted me when I was trying to give some to the other deer. We moved to a different spot and were able to give some to some does and fawns too.
The one thing we seemed to understand which most other people at the park didn’t seem to is that the deer where actually pretty intelligent, if you showed them that you had nothing in your hands they stopped bugging you for more, where as most other people wouldn’t show their empty hands and just run away from the deer. The deer wouldn’t know there was no more food and so would chase the people who seemed to get upset and squeal a lot.
It did feel pretty special to feed the deer, they are very majestic animals. Before we arrived I had heard that the deer had been trained to bow out of respect before being given food and while I didn’t notice it at first, I did start to notice that when they thought you had food to give they would come over and dip their heads, it was more of a bobbing motion than a bow, but I thought it was very smart of them.
I had known before we arrived that the reason for the deer’s presence was because they are considered a sacred animal in the shinto religion, but I hadn’t expected quite so many or so beautiful shrines as we found in Nara. There wasn’t a lot of information around about them(which is seeming to be a bit of a theme in Japan), so I don’t really know the history, but I took some photographs for the beauty of them anyway.
I definitely enjoyed my time with the deer in Nara, there were places you could escape the crowds and enjoy nature and the whole day was basically free except for a few deer treats and our own food. I hope our time with the other animals in Japan are just as fun.