According to Shinto tradition and lore, deer are the sacred messengers of the gods, such that, in ancient times, killing a deer in Nara was a crime punishable by death. Nowadays, deer are no longer considered sacred, but in honor of tradition, they’re considered as protected national treasures, which is why you can see them roaming in Nara Park. In fact, that’s why that park is sometimes called Nara Deer Park; it’s easily remembered for having so many deer on its grounds!
Today, there are over 1,200 deer in Nara Park. These deer are called sika, which is derived from the Japanese word for deer: shika. While they’re obviously tamer than deer in the wild, they can be quite aggressive despite their cute appearance, as tourists may be frustrated to learn. These deer have gotten so used to the presence of tourists (it doesn’t help that they’ve probably been spoiled by all the feeding) that they’ve come to see tourists as a source of food. While you can buy deer crackers for less than ¥200 to feed them, they also have quite a thing for paper, and will even mob tourists just for paper (though they’d also do the same for crackers). When I visited Nara, I couldn’t count the number of times the deer tried to eat my guide maps. Once, they even startled me to the point that I dropped a flyer I was holding, and before I could even stop them, they had already begun feasting on it. I’ve also heard a possibly apocryphal tale from a friend about a hapless tourist who dropped a wallet full of bills, and… you can guess what happened next.
Seeing or smelling food isn’t the only time the deer can get aggressive, though. There are signs warning tourists that the deer can also bite, kick, and headbutt people, so don’t piss them off! As long as you keep paper and food away from them and aren’t a jerk to them, the Nara deer are quite behaved. One amusing and interesting thing about them is that if you bow to them, they bow in return. YouTube has a lot of videos of the bowing deer. Why they do that is anyone’s guess; they’re supposedly not trained to do so.
The deer are such an integral part of Nara’s tourism that there are several deer-inspired souvenirs. Aside from the usual figures, accessories, and stuffed toys, there’s also a chocolate snack called “Shika no Fun Fun Fun.” The “fun” is pronounced like “foon,” not like the English “fun,” and it refers to poop. As you can imagine, it’s a circular snack shaped to look like deer droppings. This is quite popular among tourists.
Deer aside, there are several things to do and see in and around Nara Park, which is pretty much the main site of tourism in Nara. If you don’t have much time to spend in Nara, Nara Park is definitely the place to be, as its major tourist spots are concentrated here. After all, this huge park is where you can find Todaiji, which houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue inside the world’s largest wooden building; Kofuku-ji, which has a famous pagoda that’s one of the tallest in Japan; Sarusawa Pond, a small, artificial pond which also doubles as a viewing spot for Kofuku-ji; Nara National Museum; and Kasuga Taisha, known for its many stone lanterns. Can’t decide which temples or historical sites to see? Then why not join a walking tour and learn about the history of Nara in the process? (Personally speaking, though, if you only have an afternoon to spare, the spots to visit are Todaiji and Kofuku-ji.) And later on, if you’re tired from all that walking, you can also try riding a rickshaw, as most rickshaw drivers wait for tourists around the park.
Nara Park is just 35 minutes away from Osaka’s Kintetsu Namba Station or Kyoto Station on the Kintetsu Kyoto Line, so don’t skip this area if you like history—and if you want to see some deer up close. If you’re traveling with kids, Nara’s historical appeal may be lost on some of them, but the deer should make their visit to Nara fun and memorable.