Nara Park, in the city of Nara, Japan, is home to a large population of deer who roam freely among the forest and vast lawns of the park, approach people, and add to the sense of peace and serenity given by historical Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.
Nara, a city in the Kansai region in Japan had its heyday in the 8th century during the time known as "Nara Period", when it was the first permanent capital of Japan. The city is located next to a mountainous primeval forest with a rich diversity of plants and animals.
From its beginnings, the city was complemented with numerous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines which contributed to increase the respect for nature and promoted a caring relationship with animals. Legend has it that in 768, when the Fujiwara family established the great Kasuga Shrine in the foothills of the Wakakusa Mountain, a Shinto deity descended from the mountain to the new sanctuary riding a sacred white deer. Since then, the deer became a revered animal, protected by the authorities, and a symbol of the city.
“On our way to the shrine, many deer appeared in the morning darkness. This is a sign from the gods and a good omen. People say that when one encounters deer, he or she should get out of the carriage and bow to them.” (From “Gyoku-you” by Kujo Kanezane).
Nara deer have learned to remain in the forest or within the boundaries of the park and to avoid vehicles and traffic accidents.
According to history, until 1637, killing a deer in Nara was considered a serious fault, even punishable by the death penalty. After WWII, the divinity of deer was officially suspended, but they were declared a national treasure and are now protected and maintained in a semi-wild state which humans and deer use to mutual advantage.
Deer have adapted to the human friendship and peacefully roam through the gardens of Nara Park. There is a program managed by the “Foundation for the Protection of Deer in Nara Park” to care and supervise the health aspects and the safety of humans and deer in the park, including protecting deer against traffic accidents and shielding the vegetation (trees and gardens) of the park. In October each year, and for the past 330 years, the horns of the males are cut to avoid accidents as they can be aggressive and harm people, especially in autumn, during the breeding season (see video below, in the comment section).
This little one seems to be ready to provide directions to visitors on how to get to various places in the park.
Nara deer belong to the species known as sika deer (Cervus nippon). By mid-2012, there were about 1370 deer in Nara Park. The sika deer show a pronounced sexual dimorphism. Only the males have horns. Males grow until age ten while females stop growing at age 6. The coat is reddish-brown with several rows of white spots on the sides and top of the rump.
This male deer, with antlers recently cut, waits closely for a cracker. A pack of crackers cost about US$1,8.
Nara deer are friendly, curious and show great interest in rice bran crackers that merchants sell all over the park, and the deer really like. This motivates them to stay in the vicinity of the stalls and hound anyone carrying a pack of crackers. Among the anecdotes this reporter could not verify, it is said that the deer have learned to cross the streets around the park using the zebra crossings (second video below, in the comment section), and to bow in true Japanese style when asking for food.
Sika deer at Nara Park love the rice bran crackers and can be fairly insistent to obtain them.
A visit to Nara Park is an interesting experience allowing interaction with wild animals that have learned to trust and interact with humans, and to reward visitors with a “nearly religious” sense of peace and harmony.