Early one morning in late spring I set out to visit Nara Park. I walked off the train with the tourist swarm and started heading towards Todaiji Temple. Food carts offering delicate, plain crackers dotted the sidewalk. They looked unsubstantial, but I couldn’t judge too harshly because they were not for human consumption. The crackers are only for the deer.
Nara Park is home to hundreds of free roaming sika deer. This species, cervus nippon, is from the cervidae family which includes deer, moose, elk, and caribou. According to the Animal Diversity Web, sika deer are inclined to be solitary, mostly nocturnal, and prefer forest dwellings. At least that’s what’s considered “typical” behavior for the species, but they are also incredibly adaptable. An example of their adaptability comes from the population in Nara that have adapted to tourist life.
I stopped to buy a bag of crackers and fed one to the deer that was waiting patiently by the cart. I decided that it would only be fair to save the rest for the others. As I continued walking I felt someone grabbing my purse. I instantly turned around, ready to put my karate skills to the test and confront the purse thief only to find the same deer shamelessly trying to snatch my hidden crackers (of course the deer has no shame, it’s a deer). I gave her one more cracker.
By noon the park is full of families and school groups. Five children in school uniform approach me. They are here on a field trip and have an assignment to converse with an English-speaking visitor. They ask me a set of pre-written questions like who is my favorite Japanese singer, and what was my favorite part of Nara. I replied to the latter, “the 500 ton bronze statue of Buddha is impressive, but I can’t get over how many deer are around.” They smiled and laughed although I think only one girl understood me.
The history of sika deer in Nara Park started with religious reverence based on Shinto legends. Today they are still respected as a national natural treasure and are free to roam in the park. I am amazed that the deer appear to be so comfortable around humans. They are obviously used to tourists here and the crackers are probably an enticement. However, they are wild animals and people still need to be careful, respectful, and grateful to have a chance to be close to an animal that would normally be difficult to encounter.