Nara Park: the land of bold and brazen deer

Nara, Japan: once upon a time the nation’s capital, now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Though Nara is well-known for its centuries-old temples, and its impressive array of history, arts, and culture museums, the city’s main and most beloved attraction is, without a doubt, the deer.

I’ve been desperate to visit the deer in Nara ever since arriving in Japan; I mean, it’s not everyday you get the chance to see a deer up close, let alone pet one on the head! Since Nara is only about a two hour commute from Minoh, many of my fellow Minoh JET’s had already been to Nara before. As I listened to stories about my friends’ deer-petting experiences over the last six months, I grew more and more eager for my own.

Finally, after months of attempting – and failing – to fit an excursion to Nara into my schedule, I had the chance to take the long overdue trip during the long winter break. Two days after Christmas, my friend (who’d been staying with me from the States) and I decided to brave the brutal winter winds and visit Nara Park.

Upon exiting Kinetsu-Nara station, we began making our way toward the park. I knew we were headed in the right direction when I started to see deer painted on street posts. IMG_9190And sure enough, after about a 10 minute walk, we spotted our first deer! IMG_9201IMG_9196And then our second, third, and many more after that. The deer were everywhere – I’d say I saw at least 30 in the area we walked through alone. Some were drinking from the stream, nibbling on the grass, others lounging beneath the shade. But, unsurprisingly, the majority of the deer in the area were gathered near a cart selling 鹿せんべい.IMG_9225鹿せんべい (pronounced shika senbei) are thin, round crackers made of flour, water, and bran that can be fed to the deer.  This cart, one of the many set up along the outskirts of the park, sold the crackers in a set of 10 for 150 yen each.

My friend and I purchased a set of shika senbei and split it between the two of us. Since I only had 5, I wanted to be careful about which deer I fed. I read online somewhere that the deer will sometimes bow to you for a cracker, which I thought sounded like fun to see, so I planned on handing out each of my five crackers to the deer that was the most polite, hoping to entice a head nod or two.

But the instant the nearby deer sniffed the crackers in my hand, none of them bowed. Instead, they charged toward me, like an ambush, advancing in my direction from all sides. At first, I was excited to attract the attention of so many deer, but my initial excitement quickly turned to alarm when the first deer to reach me began hitting me with his head! I tried to hide the crackers inside my jacket to make him stop, but the deer would not be fooled by my amateur tricks and continued bumping against my side. And then another deer came up and started butting my backpack. And another bit my jacket!IMG_9234I was so overwhelmed by the audacious, aggressive pack of deer that I ended up handing over all five of my crackers to the one closest to me, which devoured them all in seconds. Once the other deer realized that I had no more food left, they immediately dispersed. Cracker-less, and slightly traumatized, I watched the deer saunter away in search of yet another shika senbei-holding-human to attack.

No more deer came up to me after that, but I didn’t mind much – it was easier to take pictures of them at a distance anyway.IMG_9224IMG_9228My first experience with the Nara deer ended up being a bit different from what I expected it to be, but it was an experience that I know I’ll remember for a long time; after all, it’s not every day I get the chance to be ambushed by a pack of hungry deer. I’d even say that Nara Park has made it to the top of my list of favorite places in Japan, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone planning on visiting the area. But for those who do happen to make the trip to the Park, keep in mind that although the deer may look gentle, they definitely won’t be bowing to you for a cracker. IMG_9250 copy

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