According to Shinto tradition and lore, Nara deer were the sacred messengers of the gods, such that, in ancient times, killing a deer in Nara was a crime punishable by death. These days the deer are no longer considered sacred, but to honor tradition they’re considered national treasures, which is why you can see them roaming in Nara Park. In fact, that’s why the park is sometimes called Nara deer park or Japan’s deer forest; it’s easily the area’s most defining feature.
Getting up close and personal with Nara’s world-famous deer
Today, there are over 1,200 deer in Nara Park, which is located in Nara, in Japan’s Kansai region. These deer are called sika, which is derived from the Japanese word for deer: shika. Where can you find them? Literally everywhere. There are so many deer that you don’t need to get far from the train station before you’re surrounded by them.
Feeding the deer
Nara deer are so used to the presence of humans that they’ve come to see tourists as a source of food. You can buy deer crackers for less than ¥200 to feed them, after which deer will quickly start following you around. These are apparently nutritionally balanced specifically for the deer, so please don’t just go around giving the animals pizza. A word of advice—don’t run or panic. Just calmly hand out the crackers until they’re all gone, or you could find yourself being chased, as many visitors are.
Nara’s bowing deer: Yes, they really do bow
The deer in this area are also known for their unique quirk of bowing to visitors, especially if you bow your head to them first. This is apparently a learned behavior. The deer know that they’re more likely to get food if they do so. And rightly so. It’s adorable. But don’t be fooled into thinking the deer are always so polite. There are signs warning tourists that the deer can also bite, kick, and headbutt people, so you’d be wise not to provoke them. That said, as long as you keep your food stashed away and aren’t a jerk to them, Nara deer are as close to tame as wild animals get. If you’re keen to learn a little more than bowing from the deer, here are some top phrases to get you through your stay.
Keep an eye your belongings
It’s not just food you should keep an eye on though. 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. 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. One of our writers also reported that Nara deer nibbled at his jeans, his satchel, and eventually his belly. You’ve been warned!
Deciding on a route around Nara
If you don’t have much time, Nara Park is definitely the place to be, as Nara’s major attractions are concentrated here. It’s well worth taking a glance at a map (away from hungry deer) to figure out your route before you arrive. The must-see attraction is Todaiji Temple, said to be the world’s largest wooden building. As if that wasn’t enough, the temple also houses the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue. Entry costs ¥600.
There’s also Kofuku-ji, which features one of Japan’s best-known (and tallest) pagodas. This is best viewed from Sarusawa Pond, a small artificial pond. If you’ve got extra time on your hands, you can visit the nearby Nara National Museum for a little history, or Kasuga Taisha Shrine, known for its many stone lanterns. Here are some of the best places to see in the city.
Booking a guided tour of Nara
After hanging with the deer, can’t decide which temples or historical sites to see in Nara? There’s a morning tour starting from Kyoto, on which a local guide will be around to teach you about the history of Nara (personally speaking though, if you only have an afternoon to spare, the key spots to visit are Todaiji and Kofuku-ji). 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.
Souvenirs and shopping in Nara
The deer are such an integral part of Nara’s tourism that there are several deer-inspired souvenirs to take home. 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, well, poop. As you can imagine, it’s a circular snack shaped to look like deer droppings. This is quite popular among tourists. Read about other Japanese souvenir ideas or our ethical guide to souvenirs if you’ve got sustainability on your mind.
When it comes to shopping, you won’t find much but souvenirs in the park itself. Higashimuki Shopping Arcade is among the livelier retail spots in Nara, and has a wide variety of shops and restaurants. There are plenty of car parking options around this area too—with the official Nara Park car park reputedly the biggest and cheapest at ¥1,000 for the day. Read about renting a car in Japan.
Hotels in Nara
Thinking of staying in Nara? There are plenty of hotels, hostels and ryokan (Japanese-style inns) near Nara Park. You’re best off doing a little research based on your price range—rates can vary wildly between modest and extravagant, depending on the establishment.
On the cheapo end of the spectrum, Nara Guesthouse Kamunabi offers inexpensive hostel-style lodgings, as well as private rooms. Nara Hotel is on the cushier side, with simple hotel-style twin and double rooms—some close enough to have views of the park itself. If you’re looking for more traditional lodgings, Ryokan Kosen is well situated, and includes a public hot spring bath.
Traveling to Nara
Nara is a popular stop on Japan’s “Golden Route”, so there’s a good chance you’ll be coming from (or going to) one of the Kansai region’s other big cities, like Osaka or Kyoto. Fortunately, the area is well connected, with trains running from early morning to late evening.
Getting to Nara Station
To get to Nara Park from Osaka, you can take the Kintetsu Line from Namba Station in just 35 minutes. From Kyoto Station you’ll want to take the Kintetsu Line too, which also takes around 35 minutes. If you’re using a JR Pass, you could get the Miyakoji rapid train from Kyoto Station to JR Nara Station in 45 minutes. Just be sure to get the rapid train, not the local. From Tokyo, you’ll want to catch the Shinkansen to Kyoto first—see our article for the fastest and cheapest ways to go.
Getting from the station to Nara Park
Depending on which train station you arrive at, you’ll take a slightly different route. The park is a short walk from JR Nara Station—about 20 minutes in total. It’s a straight line once you’ve reached Sanjo Dori Street. From Kintetsu Nara Station, it’s closer to 10 minutes, following Omiya Dori Street. If in doubt, follow the crowds (and eventually, the deer). All in all, there’s a good chance you’ll be doing a lot of walking when you visit, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes!
Nara Park opening hours and prices
Nara Koen (that’s the Japanese name for the park) itself is free to enter and open 24 hours a day, but you’re probably best off going during the daytime for a few reasons. Many of the temples and attractions are only open from 8am–5pm, and the streets aren’t especially well lit. So if you’re going for some pictures, you might have a hard time at night. Most importantly, you’ll have the best chances to meet the deer, which seem to hunker down after early evening.
When to visit Nara Park
Nara’s deer park is worth visiting in any season, though spring and fall are known as the most beautiful times to go. In spring, that’s thanks to the stunning cherry blossoms around Todaiji. If you’re lucky enough to be in Kansai during full bloom, be sure to see some of Kyoto and Osaka’s amazing sakura spots too.
In autumn, the leaves turn to vivid shades of red, yellow and gold, making for an equally magical atmosphere. Just be sure to pack appropriately. In summer, the weather in Kansai lies somewhere between blistering and scorching, and you’d be surprised how many of the ancient temples don’t have air-con. In winter, expect chilly weather. Fortunately, the deer don’t seem to mind the cold too much, so you’ll still get to meet plenty!
While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. This post was first published in August, 2015. Last updated in June, 2019 by Felix Wilson.