Considered messengers of the gods, 1,200 wild deer live in Japan’s first capital, Nara, roaming this ancient city’s main park and being hand-fed by crowds of tourists.
Now, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the tourists have disappeared and Nara’s revered Sika deer are wandering the city’s suddenly empty streets looking for food.
Japanese media have shown videos of Nara’s deer acting out of character. They have been found blocking traffic in the city’s downtown streets, eating shrubs in its shopping areas and even venturing inside Nara’s large train station.
The reason these deer are behaving abnormally: They have grown accustomed to being fed Shika Senbei crackers.
Made from water, bran and flour, these healthy crackers nourish the herbivores, who otherwise live off grass and the nuts and berries which fall from the trees inside their home, Nara Park.
Vendors in the park sell packets of 10 crackers to visitors for $2 each. The sensation of having a wild deer eating out of your palm is beguiling.
These elegant animals played a central role in one of the most significant days of my life.
It was late 2016 and Nara Park was painted by the bright colours of its autumnal bloom.
Never had I felt so in need of being soothed by nature. Just before my train arrived at Nara station that morning, I had received a phone call that left me crestfallen. Some 10,000km away in Ireland, my father had just died.
I was so shocked by this news that I told my wife I could not discuss it with her, that instead we should silently wander in Nara Park. For the next three hours, I let grief wash over me. Examining nature while in such a fragile state is unnerving, peculiar and ultimately comforting.
In hindsight, it was fitting I was in one of my favourite places in the world. Across previous visits, I had been fascinated by its deep history, captivated by its ancient architecture, dazzled by its natural splendour and charmed by its majestic deer.
From central Osaka, Nara is 30 minutes away by train. Nara Park is then only a 15-minute walk east of Nara station.
For updates on Japan’s entry requirements, go to the website of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.mofa.go.jp).
For daily updates on coronavirus cases in Japan, go to the website of Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (www.mhlw.go.jp/english).
With their expressive eyes, long limbs, glossy coats, confident posture and fluid movements, deer are glorious creatures.
On the surface, it makes sense they are so revered in Japanese culture. But the story behind Japan’s worship of deer is more complicated and curious. It can be traced back to the birth of Nara 1,300 years ago, when the city was created to become Japan’s first permanent capital.
Taking inspiration from the layout of Chang’an, capital of China’s Tang Dynasty, Nara’s design featured grid-formation streets which were embellished by magnificent Buddhist and Shinto structures.
Buddhism had only recently arrived in Japan at that point and co-existed alongside the Shinto religion, just as it does now.
The largest of these religious complexes built in Nara’s fledgling days was Todaiji, a monumental Buddhist complex which remains in wonderful condition.
Almost 50m tall, this wooden temple is one of eight places in Nara listed as a collective Unesco World Heritage site. The others are the Buddhist temples of Kofukuji, Gangoji, Yakushiji and Toshodaiji, as well as the Heijo Palace, Kasugayama Primeval Forest and the Kasuga-Taisha Shinto shrine.
It is from the latter that Nara’s deer reputedly gained their special powers. When Nara was being built, the Japanese god of thunder Takemikazuchi came to live atop Mount Wakakusa, which looms over the city.
From that lofty perch, Takemikazuchi watched the construction of the Kasuga-Taisha shrine, which became dedicated to him.
The deer which lived alongside this shrine in Nara Park were considered to be messengers of this mighty god, a reputation they have sustained for more than a millennium.
With its bright red columns and white walls, the shrine still glows amid the dense forest of Nara Park.
As one of the most-visited tourist sites in Nara, this shrine is also thronged by deer. These creatures go where the food is. In the process, they thrill hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
Standing beneath a swaying tree canopy at the foot of a 1,300-year-old shrine is already an exotic event. To then be encircled by friendly deer, and have them eat from your hand, elevates this experience.
For the time being, few such indelible moments are being created in Nara. The coronavirus has seen to that. Amid this global health crisis, tourist arrivals to Japan have plummeted and are unlikely to rebound significantly in the next few months.
Meanwhile, Nara’s magical deer have grown lonely for their human friends and the snacks they bear.
Be patient, you beautiful beings. We will return as soon it is safe.
• The writer is an Australian journalist and photographer who splits his time between Ireland and Asia.