“I’m sorry, I’m so afraid of your tongue!” he said to the three deer that surrounded him as he fed them with shika sembei, the specially made deer biscuit sold at Nara Deer Park. He broke the circular wafers into small pieces and held them out. “I don’t want you to lick me,” he said. But their mouths were so close to his fingers that he had to step back to avoid them, shouting “no!” as he went. We both laughed as I recorded the scene on my camera. It was not something I expected on this day trip.
Nara (pop.360,000) in central Japan is home to over a thousand deer that roam freely around the park. It was the capital of Japan 1,300 years ago and is known for the Buddhist temple Todai-ji, the world’s largest wooden building and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Even at the gate of the temples, deer sat along the paths without a care in the world.
Deer are believed to be messengers of the gods of Kasuga-Taisha, the Shinto shrine at the east end of the park. Legend has it that the god of thunder came to Nara on a white deer and deer were once considered sacred–killing them was punishable by death. Today, they are considered national treasures.
The deer in Nara may not be completely tame, but they are unbelievably polite, bowing in between chews of the shika sembei. Their antlers had just been cut weeks before (an annual tradition in Nara) and posed little harm.
By the time we were down to our last biscuit, we had learned our lesson, avoiding groups of deer, which can turn into a persistent mob if they are especially hungry. But it’s still worth approaching these creatures who have become used to the presence of humans and have come to coexist in a mutual relationship–they’re happy with their treats, we are happy making them happy.
If you’re coming to the Kansai region of Japan to visit Osaka and Kyoto, reserve a day for Nara. Where else in the world will you find as many cute mascots with antlers (and merchandise to go with them)? Kawaii!