One of the cities that struck me most in Japan was its first capital, Nara. Sure, I love all of the other better known cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto but I found Nara’s underrated appeal raw and unique. I don’t think a lot of people outside Asia know about this old treasure and I haven’t really thought much of Nara in the past. Maybe it was the calming atmosphere brought by the trees and soft hills, and the ancient temples and towering shrines.
Or maybe it was the prevalent presence of unabashed wild sika deer freely roaming the streets and hanging out side by side with people. I think that was it.
The most popular place to spot and interact with these beautiful creatures is Nara Park. This public park hosts over a thousand deer grazing and frolicking all over the property.
According to local folklore,Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, one of the four gods of Kasuga shrine arrived in the old capital riding a white deer. From then on, the deer has been revered as a sacred animal and killing one of these was punishable by death. It wasn’t until after World War II when the deer was officially stripped off its divine status, and considered a national treasure instead.
These wild sika deer likes to hang out with visitors because you can buy deer crackers and feed it to them. As much as it made me feel like I was in an exotic petting zoo, some of these animals were pretty big and aggressive so you still have to be cautious around them. At one point, when I was feeding a couple of deer, some of their friends followed suit and next thing I knew I was surrounded by a lot of them! They’re also not cute and endearing most of the time. I mean they are wild and smelly. There had also been some growing concerns in Nara because the deer population is growing and may soon crowd the park and the city.
I also enjoyed the warning signs posted all over the park. If you don’t read Japanese, don’t worry. I think the illustrations were pretty clear! And amusing too. Oh, I love Japan.
Up Close and Personal
What amazed me about these wild deer, was the fact that they were not scared of humans. Coming from Connecticut, the only time I see one is by hiding so they won’t run away or if they’re road kill. But in Nara, I was able to feed them, pet a couple of them, and have selfies together! I also loved how the locals were nonchalantly unaffected by their presence. They’re so used to having these lovely creatures roam freely that it wasn’t a big deal anymore.
As for me, it was my first time to get up close and personal with Nara’s famous residents and it was pretty awesome. This would never happen back home!
These wild ones may not be “sacred” anymore but they still came from a rich history and the local residents still respect and protect them. After all, Nara’s deer were once considered messengers of the gods.