Nara Park is one of the most famous animal spots in Japan. Scores of tourists come every year to see the 1,000 wild sika deer roam around the park which includes the grounds of the famous temple, Tōdai-Ji, Kōfuku-Ji, and Kasuga Shrine. Tōdai-Ji has the largest bronze Buddha statue so I would highly recommend visiting it along with the other religious sight while taking in the remarkable sight of wild deer in the middle of a city.
*For more information on Tōdai-Ji, here is a great post by Ricardopedia.
The deer were considered sacred in Japanese religion and killing one was punishable by death until 1637. The deer are no longer legally sacred but are protected as national treasures. Harming one will result in months of jail time. They roam freely around the park and often can be seen napping in large groups. You won’t see too many antlers when you go as they are removed during a yearly ceremony to protect local trees and people. Bucks rub their antler against trees to remove hairy tissue that gives nutrients for their antlers to grow called velvet. Formed antlers have no nerve endings so removing their antlers does not cause them any pain. The deer are cute and can be “bowing” for special senbei(rice crackers). They are critical to the tourism of the city of Nara and have been embraced as a mascot of sorts. But unfortunately, there are some things to take into consideration when you visit to protect the well-being of our cervus friends.
The problems of Nara Park
While this is a fun activity for humans and one that I regrettably participated in a few years ago, giving the deer senbei is not healthy for the deer. Treats can be bad for their health especially if fed in excess and create food aggression. The deer will often attack other deer or even humans to get food. The deer frequently accidentally consume inedible matter such as plastic in their search for treats. The deer depend on the tourists as their meal ticket and are in big trouble when they don`t come. Besides feeding, any kind of human interaction with a wild animal can cause animal stress which can make them more susceptible to disease. Due to human feeding, their population had ballooned to a point that exceeded the carrying capacity of their environment. Now, We are seeing the negative impact of this during the pandemic, as tourists in Nara have greatly diminished the deer lost an important food source and had to venture outside the park risking their chance of being hit by a car and dying from starvation. Exceeding the carrying capacity has a devasting effect on the environment as overpopulation of herbivores results in overgrazing which destroys the habitat of other wildlife.
What can we do to fix the problems?
If you go, keep your distance and resist the urge to give them treats. Passively admire these beautiful creatures. It will benefit them in the long run and help with population control. Feeding them creates overpopulation that the environment can not support in addition to creation unsustainable reliance on humans for food. Culling had to be done in 2017 after 164 people were injured by the deer. We all love animals but it’s important to realize their our interactions with wild animals even in a playful way can be detrimental to their health. I am not an expert on this topic but in my opinion, places like Nara park, Arashiyama(monkeys), and Okunoshima(rabbit island) have to fundamentally change how they operate. Allowing humans to get close to and to feed wild animals is dangerous to both parties and artificially inflates the population to a number that the environment can not support.
My suggestions to make the park more sustainable
1)Ban feeding the deer
2) Implementing a rule that visitors must be at least 10 feet away from the deer
3) Ban all plastics in the park
4) Limit the number of tourists that can enter the parks each day
5) Create a car-free area around the park
The city of Nara is easily accessible for those visiting Kyoto or Osaka. From Kyoto station, take the Kintetsu Limited Express to Kintetsu-Nara station(35 minutes) and then a 5-minute walk to the park. It costs ¥1,160 one way. From Osaka-Namba station in Osaka, you can take the Kintetsu Limited express to Kintetsu-Nara in 40 minutes. It costs ¥570 one way.
Admission: Free but some temples will have entrance fees to halls like the Great Budha at Todai-ji(¥600)