There are approximately 1,200 sika (shika) deer in Nara Park according to the Foundation for the Protection of Deer in NARA. (FPDN) The legend of a white deer bearing one of Japan’s guardian deities to Nara in the 8th century led to Nara’s deer being considered sacred messengers to the gods, and today they are national treasures. Up until the 17th century the punishment for injuring or killing a deer was death. The revered and gentle treatment that Nara’s deer have received over the centuries has led them to become quite used to people, but they are still wild animals and need to be respected as such.
Here’s how to stay friendly and safe with Nara’s deer.
1. Be aware!
Female deer (does) give birth to fawns from May to July. Approaching a mother deer and her fawns is not advisable and may draw an aggressive response from the mother deer. Approaching a fawn, even if its mother is not immediately present, must also be advised against.
During the September to November mating season, male deer (bucks) may become aggressive toward both each other and people. Approaching a buck deer during this time is not advisable. One should also pay extra attention to the buck deer in the area when there are female deer around, and when purchasing shika senbei deer crackers to feed them.
A number of adult male deers have their antlers cut off during the “Antler Cutting Ceremony” in mid October, and the FPDN also takes the precaution of cutting the antlers off of some of the other buck deer in and around Nara Park. However, antlers or not, they can still cause injury with their hooves and teeth or with a charge.
2. Only feed the deer the shika senbei crackers on sale by vendors in and around Nara Park.
2581 deer died of “illness” or “other causes” between the 2015 and 2016 surveys conducted by the FPDN. Details of the illnesses and other causes are not reported on the FPDN’s website, but it does caution against feeding the deer anything other than the senbei crackers which are specially formulated for the deer. Visitors should also secure any maps, newspapers, brochures and other papers, plastic bags and other plastic products in a bag where the deer cannot get to them. Visitors are also asked to carry all their garbage back to their accommodations with them. There are no garbage cans in Nara Park to prevent the deer from getting access to and ingesting plastic and other garbage.
3. Use the suggested feeding method.
Nara’s deer are well known in Japan for “bowing” to ask for a shika senbei cracker. To get them to do this it is suggested that you hold the shika senbei over the deer’s head to get it to bow, hold the shika senbei behind your back to elicit a second bow, and then hold it above the deer’s head one more time to get a third and final bow before rewarding the deer with the treat.
4. Be careful and use common sense.
Outside of the birthing and mating seasons (especially in the winter), the deer may become over-eager or aggressive and may mob visitors trying to feed them shika senbei crackers. If you find yourself mobbed by deer, pass your shika senbei off to a friend or group member or conceal them where the deer can’t see them, show the deer your empty hands and move calmly but swiftly to another area. If you’re traveling with children keep a close watch on them and their interactions with the deer. Picking up and holding young children while feeding the deer or keeping them out of the way is also a good idea.
There are signs throughout Nara Park warning that the deer may kick, bite, head butt or charge and knock down visitors. Such events are rare but they can happen. Follow the above advice, use your head and stay calm and you are unlikely to encounter any difficulties with Nara Park’s famous residents.