Frolic with the deer around Nara Park
Nara is home to the most sculptures and buildings designated as national treasures in all of Japan. This is partially owing to the fact that the city itself is older than that of even Kyoto. These historic structures are naturally the focus of many tourists who come to the city to sightsee, but there is one particular symbol of Nara that must not be forgotten – the deer.
Some 1,000 odd deer make Nara Park, and the surrounding mountainous areas, their cosy home. Nara Park can be found in Nara city in the heart of the prefecture bearing the same name. It is not merely the sheer amount of deer living in the area that makes them interesting, but the fact that they strut around the town with a poised confidence about them. While this is a sight you might expect to find somewhere deep in the mountains out in the wild, to see so many deer out and about in town is surely a phenomenon that cannot be experienced in very many places around the world.
So why are there so many deer found wandering about in Nara?
The answer to this question can be found in the long and vast history of Japan. Wild deer have always inhabited Nara, however, it has been said that when the Kasuga Grand Shrine was built approximately 1,300 years ago in the year 768, a kami (Japanese god) rode on the back of a white deer to welcome and commemorate the birth of the shrine. The deer of Nara have long been regarded as gods ever since the beginnings of this legend. Having knowledge of this deep history adds to the reason why the deer are so beloved, especially so when they approach visitors and bow to them so ever politely.
The adorable sight of deer roaming around the place is rather common if you take a trip over to Nara Park and its surrounds. Deer crackers (shika senbei) can be purchased in the area to feed to the deer if you wish to get up close and personal with them.
The deer in Nara will bow by swaying their heads and down when they see these crackers, as if to politely request a piece or two to chew on. Many people often purchase these crackers to witness the adorable sight of them bowing, however, it is advised that you give the deer a cracker once they have bowed as they have been known to get violent when teased for a bit too long.
Trying your hand at deer herding (shika-yose, the picture above) is highly recommended if you plan on visiting Nara. This Nara tradition dates back 127 years ago to 1892 where deer were herded into one location by the sound of a French horn being blown into. Trumpets were originally used for this activity before French horns became the norm. The deer come flocking in from all directions upon hearing the sound of it. It is an impressive sight to behold, whilst also being rather cute as the deer quickly bound on in to gather with their fellow companions.
This experience can be had within the grounds of Kasuga Grand Shrine between 8am and 11am (8am to 10am during the summer months of July to September) for 20,000 yen per herding and can be booked a year in advance. Splitting the cost between a large group makes the experience rather reasonable and worthwhile. Experiences are also conducted free of charge on certain days in summer and winter, so it is worth looking into these dates at event calendar for further information.
Dropping by the cat cafés and owl cafés
Deer are usually the first animal that come to mind when the city of Nara is mentioned, but there are also a variety of other animal experiences to be had within the city. Cat cafés, while still uncommon in many countries overseas, are popular mainstays of Japan and can be experienced on a visit to Nara. “Cat café Cocone” (http://catcafe-cocone.com) is one such example that is easy to visit and has garnered great reviews. It is situated close to the city centre and is highly recommended.
Approximately 20 cats can be found lazing about in the stylish Japanese-styled rooms with tatami mat floors and bamboo interior fixings. You can sit back and watch the cats as you read a few comics (only in Japanese, unfortunately) and sip on a drink, or you can pet and play with the cats with various toys if you so please. Prices start from 600 yen for 30 minutes, making this a fun experience, which is light on the pocket, worth checking out.
If you are looking to nestle up to animals of the non-feline variety, then the “Animal Shelter Zoo” (http://fukurou-naramachi.com) is a must-visit spot that offers a more unique experience. The Animal Shelter Zoo is a quick walk within Nara city and is easy to drop by on a whim if you happen to find yourself with some spare time.
While it may be known as a “zoo” it is closer to an owl café in practice. Rare owls can be found all around the establishment and the more timid residents can also be touched. It is also home to an impressive hawk that flies around inside. Don’t forget to mosey over to the rabbits, squirrels, porcupines, and other small animals for an overload of cuteness. The entry fee of 1,000 yen comes with a drink and grants you a fun experience with all of the different animals without any time constraints.
Nara, although known for its deer, also offers other fun animal experiences for you to spend your day in the city. The ability to enjoy a day filled with deer, cats, owls, hawks, and other animals is just one of the many reasons to visit Nara.
【Written by Kazuya Baba – Australia based writer】