Nara deer

The Deer of Nara

Nara or Heijō-kyō was the capital city of Japan during the Nara period (710–794 CE). The city was the country’s political and cultural center, modeled after the most prosperous capital city of China, Chang’an, during the Tang Dynasty.

Takemikazuchi

Today, Nara is no longer the capital city, but it still is the site of several historical temples and the home of the Nara Daibutsu, a 15-meter tall bronze Buddha. More surprisingly, as of late, Nara has become popular for its deer population.

The deer of Nara have become the symbol of the city and are known all across the country. Over 1,200 wild sika deer also known as the spotted deer or the Japanese deer, call Nara Park their home.

Takemikazuchi

Nara Park is a public park that was established in 1880, is one of Japan’s oldest parks, and is found at the foot of Mount Wakakusa.  The park is is one of the “Places of Scenic Beauty” designated by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). The park is about 660 hectares including the grounds of Tōdai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, and Kasuga Shrine.

The legend of Takemikazuchi

Local legend tells us that Takemikazuchi (建御雷/武甕槌) a deity in Japanese mythology, considered a god of thunder and a sword god, appeared on Mount Wakakusa riding a white deer. Since then, the deer were considered divine and sacred by Kasuga Shrine and Kōfuku-ji. Killing any of the sacred deer was considered a capital offense punishable by death. This remain law until 1637, the last recorded date of a breach in that said law. When World War II ended, the deer were officially stripped of their divine status and were instead designated as national treasures and remain protected until today.

Deer senbei in Nara

Deer crackers or “shika senbei”.

Deer crackers or “shika senbei” are popular in Nara Park. The crackers are made of wheat flour and rice bran to make it healthy for the deer to consume. Deer crackers are a registered trademark of the Foundation for the Protection of Deer in Nara, and a portion of their profits goes to efforts in protecting the deer. The Nara deer are wild animals and are more than capable of foraging for food throughout the year. There is an abundance of a variety of grass in the area. There are two types of deer found in Nara Park, there are the park deer who live on the flat lands of the park and the “Mount Wakakusa deer”.

Nara deer

Feeding deer at Nara Park.

Yearly events in Nara Park

Deer calling – the sound of the horn is associated with the Deer Call where the deer are herded together. This tradition began in 1862 with the opening of the deer park. The deer of Nara emerge from the forest when they hear the sound of the horn at Tobihino, to the south of the road leading to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. It is a sight to behold.

Antler-cutting – is another grand tradition. The antler-cutting ceremony is a highlight of the ancient city’s events that began during the Edo Period (1603-1868). The antlers of the deer are cut for safety reasons and in an effort to protect the trees of Nara Park.