The Divine Deer of Nara

Let’s be honest about this trip. The main point of it was for Randi to pet the deer. It was all arranged around petting deer. So although we went to Osaka first and it remained our home base for a weekend trip including Kyoto, Inari Temple, Osaka’s castle, Dotombori, the Kuromon market, Todaiji Temple, and more…emphasis goes to the deer.

Nara is an easy hour long train ride from Osaka and a perfect addition to any trip in the surrounding area. About 1500 tame-ish Sika deer live in Nara Park and are just waiting for you to give them a cracker, called shika sembei, in exchange for a bow. (The crackers are made of rice bran and healthy for the deer, but since tourists were so few during covid and some of the deer were quite thin I made a mix of rolled oats, nuts, and apples to give them a boost. I don’t imagine that outside treats are encouraged, but no one seemed to mind.) How these deer learned the Japanese bowing custom is lost to us. Maybe they copy what they see, or perhaps a few of them were taught by the Japanese and have passed it down. Today even the tiniest, wobbliest fawn that can’t be more than a few weeks old knows the bow. This is as snow-white-in-the-magical-forest as it gets.

You can buy a stack of crackers for 200 Yen (about $2) at any street corner or stall in the area. Break them up into pieces and approach a deer. Bow, and they will bow in return. Give them the cracker. Be careful, because although they’re exceptionally gentle, they also know what’s up. They’ll take the entire stack from your hand/purse/backpack/pocket in a second and even give hot pursuit if you hold out on them, as this little girl learned:

Why are the deer friendly? These deer are sacred messengers protected by the city of Nara. Legend has it that when Japan made its capital in Nara back in the day, they asked for protection from Takemikazuchi, the lightning God. Takemikazuchi heard their call and rode on the back of a great white deer to a temple in the new capital to offer his protection. Deer near this temple have been considered sacred ever since. The punishment for harming a sacred deer of Nara was once death. Today they mingle with residents and tourists without a trace of fear; we saw them stop traffic to just to stand around in the middle of the road around multiple times. You’ll find them in the park but also wandering surrounding areas: train stations, temples, Starbucks, and more.

There are also non-deer related attractions in the area (as if you’d get tired of deer?!), but they are still made more magical by having the deer there. In the center of Nara Park you’ll find the Todaiji temple, one of the world’s largest wooden structures, housing two of the biggest Buddha statues in Japan. The sheer size of the statues and building just doesn’t come through in photos. One of the golden curved horns on the roof is far taller than the average person, and the Buddhas absolutely tower over you at over 50 feet in height. The temples were constructed in 752 after political upheavals, smallpox epidemics, and natural disaster in Japan (sound familiar?) in an effort to save the country through Buddhism.

Surrounding the Buddhas in every cardinal direction are four guardian kings in full armor: Guardian of the North, Tamonten (also known as the God of War; his season is Winter and color is white), Guardian of the East, Jikokuten, (Spring, blue and green), Guardian of the South, Zochoten, (Summer, fiery red, represents spiritual growth), and Guardian of the West, Komokuten (all-seeing, Autumn). They are trodding on small demon creatures that represent evil. If you didn’t know, there are different types of Buddhas in different stages of enlightenment to be found in statues all over Japan! All this time I thought there was only one Buddha.

Outside, a strange wizened statue that reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle goes untouched due to COVID:

Signs of COVID are everywhere and I enjoy photographing them for posterity. Our temperature is often checked before entry into a public place, free hand sanitizer is everywhere, everyone is masked, and many artifacts that are normally touched are now roped off. Still, life goes on much as normal in other ways.

Aside from Todaiji temple and several other temples in Nara park, there is just the beauty of the park itself. We spent about 3 hours wandering the grounds. Enjoy the scenery as I spam you with deer 🙂 After a few hours in Nara park we wandered to the Starbucks on the way back to the train station, sipped hot coffee while we watched the deer stop traffic as they pleased, and headed home.