The vicious deer of Nara

Nara is an ancient city not too far from Nagoya. At one point it was the capital of Japan (from 710 to 785). The most famous sites include the largest wooden structure on earth (Todaiji Temple), a 15m Buddha statue and the second tallest pagoda of Japan (Kofukuji Temple).

But never mind all that, because perhaps the most famous tourist attraction in Nara are the deer. Large numbers of Sika Deer (‘shika’ in Japanese) wander freely around the premises. Visitors can purchase rice crackers, called ‘shika senbei’, to feed the deer.

Sika deer in Nara
Sika deer in Nara
Nara deer everywhere
Deer everywhere!
selling shika senbei
A stall selling shika senbei, the special crackers to feed the deer.

At first sight, the deer seem quite tame. In fact, they appear to be downright lethargic.

This deer just couldn't be bothered, although I am practically in its face with my camera    This deer just couldn't be bothered, although I am practically in its face with my camera. Even when I start petting it, it acts as though I am not there.
This deer just couldn’t be bothered, although I was practically in its face with my camera. Even when I started petting it, it continued to act as though I was not there.

But don’t be fooled. Their innocence is but a ruse. As soon as they smell food, the deer of Nara turn into vicious predators. They stop at nothing to get hold of the rice crackers, even going as far as attacking the humans holding the crackers.

deer looking for food
Obtrusive deer looking for food. These people didn’t even buy shika senbei. They are just trying to enjoy a bit of yaki-imo (grilled sweet potato).

My personal deer feeding adventure soon turned into a shouting frenzy when one of the deer tried to head-butt me. Another person in our group got bitten in the  behind while feeding the deer.

In all fairness, the park authorities did warn us this might happen. Here is an overview of what the deer might do to you:

nara warning sign
Warning sign in Nara park

Be forewarned!


12 thoughts on “The vicious deer of Nara

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  1. I lived in Nara for a year and a half. Nara deer have the calm of Hindu cows, I once watched a large adult male stroll belligerently into traffic and stand their staring down cars, bringing traffic to a standstill for five minutes or so till he got bored and wandered off. They are kind of cool but don’t be fooled their cuteness is a ruse when they see you carrying shika senbei they will be quick to let you know who they think is in charge.

    1. Haha, I can really picture the scene of the deer staring down the cars. Indeed I was amazed at the change that came over the deer once they spotted shika senbei. It was a little scary. Living in Nara, did you have to deal with the deer regularly? Or are they only confined to the park that houses most of the touristic sites? I didn’t see much of Nara except for the park and the daibutsu.

      1. You mostly only see them in the parks around Todaiji, where the Daibutsu is but you might occasionally see them in less populated parts of Nara too. They’re considered sacred in Nara. According to wikipaedia; “a mythological god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital of Heijō-kyō. Since then the deer have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country.”

  2. I have heard that the deer can be quite greedy about food. Scary!
    We have a local park where people can buy pellets of duck food and feed the ducks. I have seen ducks chase people to get food and I thought that was scary. I would hate to be on the receiving end of a headbutt or bite from a deer.

    1. Your story reminds me of the time I went to feed bread to the ducks and ended up being chased by a hungry swan. Until that moment, I had never fully appreciated how big swans are, especially if they are storming at you with their wings spread while loudly hissing. I started throwing pieces of bread at it to distract it, but it just kept running toward me. So I panicked and threw the full bag of bread at it, to buy myself some time to run away. So much for my quiet afternoon feeding the ducks. Ever since then I am very mistrustful of swans.

  3. I cannot remember which was which but in my experience, either the deer from Nara were full and the ones from Miyajima (near Hiroshima) were hungry or the other way round. In one city they charged at you for food and in the other they couldn’t care less.

    I would love to go back to Nara as I have never been as an adult. I went quite often with my grandparents when I was a kid.

    1. I haven’t been to Hiroshima so I can’t compare. But in Nara I have met both kinds of deer. At least, I presume the lethargic deer to be full. The hungry dear gathered near the senbei stands, ready to ambush people.

      Other than the deer, Nara was not one of my favourite cities that I’ve visited in Japan. Maybe it’s because all the historic buildings are outside of the city in a separate area? I don’t know. Although I do have to admit that the giant buddha statue is quite impressive.

      1. I didn’t realize that about Nara that things are spread apart. I have a very nice set of carved wood ohinasama (girls’ day dolls) typical to Nara that my grandmother bought me when I was in kindergarden so kind of nice memory.

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