Devious Deer of Nara, Japan

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Nara, Japan is an excellent place to visit, and a big part of this is the wild deer that roam the city. If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “gee, I really want to go to a park where I can interact with and feed over one thousand deer” then it’s time to book your trip to Nara, one of our favorite cities in Japan. (Updated May 10, 2021.)

Let’s start with a brief update. It’s been a tough year for the devious deer of Nara. Tourism came to a screeching halt in Japan’s ancient capital last year, and their main source of food–deer crackers and other handouts–disappeared almost overnight. As a result, the hungry deer reverted to their natural foraging instincts.

The Nara Deer Preservation Foundation and Hokkaidō University studied the animals’ behavior to document the degree to which the deer were changing. Researchers found that deer in the central area of Nara Park normally frequented by tourists dropped from 71.9% of the herd to 50.2% during daytime hours, and down from 56.5% to 34.9% at night. With significantly fewer people visiting, deer reverted to natural nocturnal habits and were also spending more time grazing in areas adjacent to the park.

The study and researcher conclusions are interesting. It remains to be seen what measures are taken to reduce friction between humans and deer once tourists inevitably return. The now slightly less tame deer could butt heads with people more often at first, both figuratively and literally. (Or rather, butt rear-ends in the literal sense!)

In other positive deer of Nara news, the first deer fawn to be born this year in Nara Park was unveiled on May 10, 2021! The newly born female fawn will be displayed at Rokuen, a facility in the park where deer are kept, beginning June 1, 2021. She will be released into the park with other deer in late July 2021, according to the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation.

Around 200 fawns are born in the park each year, with late May to mid-June being the peak period of their delivery. The park did not display a fawn last year; this small bit of news is meant to provide a bit of optimism and hope for more normalcy on the horizon.

On that note, we’ll turn to how things normally work with Nara’s devious deer. The city was actually the first permanent capitol of Japan, and has a variety of shrines, temples, and ruins that are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We’ve stayed in the city a few times, and regularly do day trips from Kyoto via the JR Nara Line (read our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan for more on day trips and many other suggestions).

In fact, we highly recommend doing the same, and you can read how to see it all in our 1-Day “Best of” Nara, Japan Itinerary. Besides being one of the cultural hotspots of Japan that is often overlooked in favor of Kyoto, Tokyo, and Osaka, Nara is home to like, twenty-seven million deer. Or, so it seems.

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Actually, the ‘Nara Deer Park’ as it’s known is home to over 1,000 deer. It’s an open, public park, not a park in the sense that it’s a petting zoo for deer. Technically, these deer are wild, but only in the sense that there are no cages or fences keeping them in place.

This is evidenced by the fact that they tend to roam outside of Nara Deer Park and can be found scattered across Nara. When I say “scattered about,” I really mean it. The deer are everywhere, from lingering at the entrance to restaurants to temples to roads. Drivers simply wait until the deer decide to move out of the way–I’ve never witnessed anyone honking at them.

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You’ll also see them in a variety of other places where you wouldn’t expect to find deer (in reality, I can’t think of many urban environments where you’d “expect” to find deer, but that’s besides the point); they’re all over the place in Nara. They are devious little guys!

Semi-tame and free-roaming are probably the most apt terms to describe the devious deer of Nara. If domesticated and wild are the two ends of the spectrum, they’re still closer to wild, though.

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The deer have been semi-domesticated as they have been in such close proximity to humans for so long, and the handouts people give them pretty much guarantee that they aren’t going anywhere.

I mean, if you were a deer living the posh life of being feed crackers, living in a nicely manicured park, and not being hunted, would you really give that up? Not that deer really think about this that rationally, but I think the food is the only “justification” they need.

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Since numerous vendors throughout Nara sell deer crackers (“shika sembei”) that people can feed to deer for 150 yen per packet, the deer are assured a constant supply of food, and have no reason to go anywhere.

The deer are a huge draw to Nara, Japan, and the city is quite proud of its rich heritage as it pertains to deer. The Shinto religion and local beliefs hold that a deity named Takemikazuchi arrived in the old capital of Nara on a white deer to act as the city’s protector, and as a result, the deer of Nara were considered sacred, messengers of the gods.

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Until the late 1600s, killing a deer in Nara was a capital offense, but it’s unclear whether the deer remain sacred now.

I’ve read conflicting reports–it seems they are “only” national treasures now. From visiting it was quite clear that the residents of Nara had the utmost respect for the deer that occupy their city. There’s even a foundation that protects them.

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As a result of their sacred and/or national treasure status, and because the deer are probably the single greatest reason tourists flock to Nara, there are tributes to the deer everywhere.

From deer graffiti to restaurants serving deer-shaped desserts to sculptures, flags, and other tributes to the deer, it’s clear that deer are the unofficial mascot of Nara as soon as you walk one block in the city. Imagine visiting Green Bay during a playoff run…except if Packers fans worshipped deer instead of cheese, and you have the idea.

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As for the deer as a tourist draw, I have to admit that it’s pretty awesome to head to a shrine or park and be surrounded by deer. I grew up in the Midwest, and we regularly had deer in our yard, so it’s not as if deer are a novelty to me.

The difference is that those deer ran away when humans came remotely close to them, and these deer walk towards you when they see you. There’s also significant appeal in this not being a petting zoo, per se, with animals actually in captivity. There are deer in “de facto” captivity, but it still feels dramatically different.

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The deer are active at all hours of the day, looking for their next handout, but with few people around at night, most of them just rest on the ground.

I assume fall is mating season for deer in Japan, as I don’t know why else some of the bucks would have been carrying on as they were, essentially crying for the doe to…partake in some deer recreation. The doe, such as the one above, showed no interest, only causing the bucks to wail more. C’mon guys, show some class!

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The deer were absolutely fearless towards human. Thinking it might be food, they would come within inches of my camera. Realizing it was not food, they’d voice their disdain for me.

The younger deer and fawn were generally the friendliest of the bunch…

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They were just as approachable as the adult deer, but weren’t so pushy about being fed.

Once the deer had their fill of food, they would generally just wander off and lie down in whatever random spot they could find. It was on the chillier side when we visited, and we spotted many under lights or sunlit locations.

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I didn’t spot a single adult buck with antlers, which I assume are removed for visitor safety. Even a semi-tame deer could probably be threatening during their rutting period.

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This lady brought snacks for the deer and first seemed excited(?) about them approaching her. I watched her feed them for a bit…

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After about 30 seconds, one of the deer became agitated that it wasn’t getting any crackers, and head-butted her in the rear.

This is very common behavior, and there are signs up warning visitors about the deer becoming aggressive if you have (or they suspect you have) food. They deer were pretty gentle about it, but these guys are persistent.

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Here’s a little girl feeding a fawn. Cute scene, right? Less than a minute later a bunch of adults came out of the woodwork and swarmed her. Again, they were gentle, but I’m sure it’s overwhelming for some kids to be encircled by so many large animals.

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Even though they are serious about getting food, to the point of digging into your bags, head-butting you, etc., they are reasonably docile.

Many are even so polite that they will bow at you when you bow at them (just be prepared to hand over a cracker in reward).

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Unlike the Japanese Macaque at Kyoto Monkey Park, who act like petulant children throwing a temper tantrum, slamming things around and darting at people if they don’t get what they want, these deer will give you a friendly “nudge”, but don’t force the issue.

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This is the look of disappointment when you’re a deer and you discover no crackers below a branch…

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If I had kids, this is the type of publicity shot that would sell me on Nara. They might be “just” deer, but there’s something about the whole experience that is really captivating. We hung out in and around Nara Deer Park for hours, just watching the deer interact with people.

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Even if you didn’t have food, many of the deer would come right up to you, allowing you to pet them.

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HIDE YO KID, HIDE YO WIFE

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Maybe it relates to mating season, but the bucks seemed aloof as compared to doe. There were still plenty of friendly ones, though.

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It seemed like Nara had a bit of a hipster scene (lots of eclectic coffee shops in faux residences where you can go to an attic and pull a book from the store’s library). Obviously, deer unite people across all walks of life…or something like that.

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If you have a bag that deer suspect is filled with food, you will be followed until they have a chance to adequately inspect it.

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This girl was initially perplexed by the deer…

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After a few minutes of apprehension, the uneasiness gave way to unbridled enthusiasm!

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Putting a ditch between you and the deer you’re feeding is a good call. Wise move, random man.

Overall, Nara is an awesome place, and I highly recommend visiting. Not just for the deer, but for the variety of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the eclectic culture, and quaintness of this “small town” feeling area (oh, and let’s not forget the main reason: NARA DREAMLAND!). It’s a nice day trip from Kyoto, and is easy to access for those with a JR Pass. If it’s your first visit to Japan and you have limited time, I probably would skip Nara, but it’s a good option that’s quite a bit different from the major cities and worth visiting if you have 10+ days in Japan. As for the Nara Deer Park, once you’re in Nara, you’re going to experience the “park” whether you go to it or not, but you should definitely go into the park itself (it’s a free public park) as that’s the epicenter of deer-happenings.

If you’re planning a trip to Japan that includes Kyoto, we recommend that you start by consulting our Ultimate Guide to Kyoto, Japan to plan all aspects of our vacation. You should also check out our other posts about Japan for ideas on other places to visit! 

Your Thoughts

Have you visited Nara, Japan? Did you feed these devious deer? What did you think of the experience? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Does visiting this spot in Kyoto interest you? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

9 replies
  1. Sad
    Sad says:

    The hype articles for a country we can’t visit feels like salt on the wound! I’m glad you’re making an effort to talk about places in countries people CAN visit.

    Reply
  2. Bret Hamatake
    Bret Hamatake says:

    My family visited Nara in May and really enjoyed the deer. My grandfather and his brothers visited the same place in 1925 and we wanted to take pictures that matched theirs from when they were there and fed the deer. We learned that many of the deer have been taught to bow to get a treat, so if you bow to them they will bow to you, then they expect to get a cracker.

    Reply
  3. Thomas Lee Boles
    Thomas Lee Boles says:

    There are deer parks in the United States, but usually the deer are in captivity. Nara has the advantage of being open every day of the year and, I believe, milder winters than much of North America. Japan also has an idea which many Americans seem to think subversive: superb public transportation. Nara is a stop for the famous “shin-kan-sen,” the bullet trains. The station is about twenty minutes’ walk from the park. If that is too far, a city bus will take you from the train station to the park, door to door.

    Reply
  4. Will
    Will says:

    The deer were such fun to watch, especially the way they terrorized and chased unsuspecting tourists- including one of our professors!

    Reply

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  1. […] Sites and is a stomping ground for the famous Nara deer. The Shika deer — numbering over 1,000 — roam freely around the city and in and around Nara Park and are known to be somewhat […]

  2. […] Deer roaming around the temple in Nara Park […]

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