I have this slight obsession with deer. They are my favourite animal. When Christmas and New Year come around, I see them as fair game to indulge my dream of actually being a deer. So you can imagine my delight when someone brought this deer park in Japan to my attention. The deer here are so tame that YOU CAN ACTUALLY HUG THEM AND PET THEM AND TAKE SELFIES WITH THEM. I mean, it is literally the dream. These are probably the best deer selfies ever taken. I have selfie envy. Welcome to the legendary Nara Deer Park in Japan.
Nara Park sits at the foot of Mount Wakakusa, just outside the main city of Nara itself. The park was established in the 1300’s, which makes it one of Japan’s oldest national parks. Up until the end of the Second World War, the deer that inhabited this park were seen as divine messengers from the gods. This ‘sacred’ status arose from the myth that a god from the nearby Kasuga Shrine appeared as a vision on the side of the mountain riding on the back of a white deer. The authorities took this sign very seriously – killing one of the Nara deer was still an offence punishable by death up until 1637, when the last punishment (!) was recorded.
Over a thousand Sika deer now roam freely in the park and, although no long considered divine, they are protected as a natural treasure and seem to have complete free rein among the city’s residents and the tourists that flock to see them year on year.
Do you have any biscuits?
The deer here have learned a special trick. In exchange for the special deer biscuits, ‘shika senbei‘, sold by the vendors in the park, the deer can often be seen ‘bowing’ cordially to tourists, earning them the nickname the ‘bowing’ deer.
Although this is probably not a sign of how ‘respectful’ Japanese deer are, as I am sure many would have you believe, it does prove their intelligence – to have learned the best way to extract their favourite treats from unsuspecting tourists is quite a feat! However, on my internet travels, I also read that a common reaction to seeing another deer bow its head in the wild is for a deer to lower its own head in return – a lowered head is most likely a sign of attack, so it would make sense that the deer are actually just responding to their natural instinct to ward off attackers when seeing a biped bow. Thankfully, they don’t seem to charge at Nara – they just want biscuits!
Give me biscuits…
Sika deer are some of the most compact species of deer in the world, smaller than both Red and Fallow deer. In the wild, they can be both flighty and territorial, but here in Nara they are remarkably calm. This is good, because visitors to the park definitely like to get up close and personal!
These little deer certainly have the most curious personalities – just a spot of window shopping…
Can you sign read?
A politically interested resident…
Just give me biscuits.
Nara Park is also significant for another reason – it is home to the Tōdai-ji, a Buddhist temple that houses the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in the world. The Japanese Kagan school of Buddhism also has its headquarters within the Tōdai-ji, and members in traditional dress can be seen walking amongst the deer petting them respectfully. For want of a better word, a ‘oneness’ seems to have sprung up between humans and animals here that is enviable from over here in England – the closest I have ever been to a deer was in complete fog in Richmond Park when I sat frozen on a tree stump for 2 hours so they wouldn’t see me!
As I was perusing the internet looking for more pictures of deer, I came across these old photographs of Nara Park. I don’t know when they were taken, but it must have been quite some time ago.
I also found a selection of vintage postcards that were intriguing because I found them on a website called ‘OC Then’, which stands for ‘Orange County Then’ – archives of Californian photographs and postcards through the ages. I thought perhaps someone from California had visited Nara in the 1950’s and brought them back with them. After some pretty in-depth searching, I discovered that California had in fact once had its very own Japanese Deer Park from 1967 – 1975, inspired directly by the one and only Nara Deer Park in Japan. The park came complete with women dressed in traditional Japanese dress, a huge koi pond, and various other rides and attractions.
The park closed down in 1975 amid what seems like quite disturbing animal health claims…
Another MUCH HAPPIER little theme I came across were the number of hilarious faces the deer at Nara seem to pull when taking selfies with the tourists. It’s difficult to believe that they don’t know exactly what they are doing for a photo moment à la Cara Delevigne with the number of expressions they pull! Perfect models.
But the most striking pictures for me were those that showed the full breadth of seasons in Nara – fiery foliage and deep green hues in Autumn, and pretty pink and white petals dappling the floor at Sakura – spring snow when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. I put together this gallery for you to enjoy.
I hope to see you myself some day, little Nara!