Mention Nara and what will spring to most people’s mind are the image of hordes of deer roaming around Nara Park.
Visiting Nara for the first time can be a somewhat surreal experience. Some parts of town seem to be inhabited by more deer than people. This holds especially true if you take a walk around town during the early morning hours, before the caravan of busses full of tourists start to appear.
However, the deer are not just your average tourist trap. In fact, the hordes of deer that roam the area around Nara Park are an integral part of the history of this city. According to Professor Noboru Ogata at Kyoto University, there’s evidence that they have been living in present day Nara Park for at least 900 years. The deer make appearances in several stories and pieces of art as early as from the Heian period (794-1185).
The story goes something like this: There used to be a god at Kashima Shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture called Takemikazuchi-no-Okami. He is supposed to have been invited to Kofuku-ji (still one of the biggest temples in Nara) for reasons unknown. According to the story however, he did show up at Nara eventually, and his chosen means of transportation was on top of a white deer. Since then, deer has been considered divine in Nara.
The divine status of the deer was around for hundreds of years, and hurting any of these divine creatures was considered a VERY serious offence. Killing one could was even punished by death. The last time someone actually got the death sentence because of this was back in 1637, but the divine status of the deer remained until the end of the Second World War. You might feel sorry for the deer losing their divine status, but they gained a designation as national treasures instead at that time, so we think it somewhat evens out.
Today, the deer are one of the most famous landmarks of Nara. Around 1000-1200 of them are believed to live in the city today, and for most of the time, they get along well with the human residents. There are some cases of people getting kicked or head-butted by grumpy deer from time to time, but usually they stay calm around humans and do not even seem to mind being forced to pose next to tourists snapping their mandatory Nara selfies.
One of the reason why the deer behave so well around the humans is most likely due to the fact that humans tend to feed them “shika senbei”, a biscuit made out of rice bran that are sold by locals at small stands all around the park.
A somewhat odd behaviour, believed to be exclusive to the deer in Nara, is that they seem to have learned how to bow. Have a walk around the park and indeed, you will see several deer bowing their head up and down, hoping to get some tasty crackers by amazed tourists as a reward. No one seem to know for sure what this behaviour comes from, but one theory is that this is not an act of politeness but rather a threat – the “bow” could in fact be deer signalling that they’re about to head-butt you, unless you give them a biscuit, that is.