How you can see, feed, and pet the sacred deer of Nara Park.
Nara, Japan is home to 350,000 people and 1,200 of the most famous deer in the world. Tourists flock to Nara Park to get up close and personal with some of the nation’s most gentle animals, and even British rock band alt-J count themselves as fans—dedicating not one, but three tracks of their 2014 album This is All Yours to the experience. If you count yourself as a cervidaephile, Instagram aficionado, or just want to experience a slice of the seemingly magical wilderness in the middle of a city, joining the herd really is as easy as a walk in the park.
What Is This Place?
Nara Park is—as the name would suggest—a park, located in the city of Nara, Japan, where visitors can see deer. According to legend, this is a holy site, thanks to Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, who visited by riding in on one of the local Sika deer. In 1880, the area was officially developed into a tourist site, making deer the symbol of the city.
How Do I Get to Nara?
Nara is an easy day trip from either Kyoto (35 km away) or Osaka (28 km). With both cities, you can get to Nara via the JR or privately owned Kintetsu Line. Express trains cost between ¥690-¥1100 (approximately $6 to $10 USD) and take about 45 mins. The park is only a 20-minute walk from the Nara station.
Where Should I Stay?
Staying in either Osaka or Kyoto means you’ll get more city for your trip with limited travel time to Nara. But if you must get the full city experience, consider aiming for one of the ryokan, traditional Japanese inns that flank the area. With outdoor baths, sleeping mats, and Japanese menus, hotels like New Wakasa, Kotono yado Musashino, and Tsukihitei offer a tradition-steeped accompaniment to your day with the deer.
When Should I Go?
The park is a public area, always open to the public. So, short answer: visit anytime you’d like. However, keep in mind that deer tend to retreat into the forest later in the afternoon/evening, so for the ultimate photo opp, aim for earlier in the day. In October, you can witness Shika-no-Tsunokiri, the ritual antler cutting event. Several times a year, there’s also a deer calling ceremony, where the animals are summoned via trumpet from deep in the forest. And of course, anytime during the spring is prime viewing season, because babies.
How Much Does It Cost?
The best things in life are free—as is the deer park. If you’d like to explore onsite temples and historical sites Todaiji Museum, Hokkedo Hall, and Kaidanin Temple, each visit will cost ¥600 (about $5 USD).
Is It Ethical?
In the Shinto religion, deer are considered holy—and today the animals are still considered to be living monuments. Up until the 1600s, killing one could end in capital punishment, and even now the offense carries harsh jail sentences. As a result, the park’s voluntary visitors are held in high esteem, very well-cared for, and allowed to come and go at will. The only place you’ll see a fence is in the rehabilitation area, where injured or sick deer are given the space to get well without visitor interference.
How Much Interaction Can I Have With the Deer?
Sure, you could pet the deer, but keep in mind no matter how kawaii, they’re wild animals and—when pushed—can act unpredictably. Instead of risking a tick infestation (again, wild animals), try making a bunch of new BFFs with a packet of deer crackers, sold around the park for ¥150 per bundle. Many of the deer have learned how to bow for a treat, so be sure to bow back and reward them with a cracker for their efforts.
Anything Else I Should Know About Respecting the Deer?
It’s worth saying again—even if they’re the stuff of animal lovers’ dreams, deer are still wild animals. Feed them crackers, and only the ones you buy on site. Don’t tease them, it only encourages nipping. Be aware of does and their offspring—no mother likes when you stand between them and their kids. And if you’re surrounded and feel a bit overwhelmed by the attention, extricate yourself and move away waving “bye-bye” with both hands—believe it or not, most of your new besties know sign language.
How Much Time Will I Spend There?
Since the deer come and go as they please, there’s no promise how many of the park’s 1,200 residents you’ll encounter—or even if you’ll see any at all. (Don’t worry, this occurrence is rare!) People generally spend an hour and a half to two hours there, but your mileage may vary.
What’s the Perfect Souvenir?
Japan loves mascots, so naturally Nara has not one, but two reps. Sento-kun, a young round boy with deer horns is the ambassador for the city—even though his introduction in 2010 caused a stir when it was pointed out he looks a little too much like Buddha, leading many to call blasphemy. Shikamaro-kun, a fuzzy, cartoonish, adorable to the nth degree deer is the official mascot for the park itself. During your walk from the train station to the park, can find both Sento-kun and Shikamaro in nearly every plush, magnet, cup, candy, souvenirs form your heart could possibly desire.