How to (safely) enjoy Japan’s famed deer park

Nara, Japan CNN  — 

Just a 45-minute train ride south of Kyoto lies the famous Nara Park, home to over 1,000 sacred deer who have learned to bow for treats.

The free-roaming animals are officially designated as a national natural treasure. Though they are considered messengers of the gods in the traditional Shinto religion, lately they’ve made headlines for some ill-informed behavior.

The deer, wild and out in the open in the park, have grown accustomed to being fed by tourists, most of whom travel to Nara for this very reason. Typically, they take what they can get and move on, but more recently, a couple of the deer have gotten aggressive, going so far as to bite the hands that feed them.

This news should not deter visitors, however, as a visit to Nara is a highlight of a trip to Japan for many foreigners. After all, how often does one get the chance to hang with dozens of roaming animals in an unenclosed space?

You need only to abide by a few simple rules to enjoy a bite-free visit to the popular park

The Nara train

Visitors to Japan often plan a day trip to Nara, though the area makes for a fine base if you’re looking for a quiet reprieve after time in Kyoto or Osaka.

Stepping off the train, first time Nara visitors are immediately greeted with artwork surrounding the station depicting the deer, and two mascots: Shikamaro-kun, a cute cartoon deer, and Sento-Kun, a baby with deer antlers representing the city. Even the local vending machines are adorned with deer-themed designs.

The deer, wild and out in the open in the park, have grown accustomed to being fed by tourists, most of whom trek to Nara for this very reason.

Established in 1880, Nara Park is one of the oldest parks in Japan. In addition to the famous deer, the park is home to Kofokuji, the family temple of the most powerful clan at the height of Nara’s influence.

Todaiji Temple, the world’s largest wooden structure and a UNESCO World Heritage site, is located on the park grounds. So too is the National Treasure Museum, noted for its collection of Buddhist art.

Japan’s second-tallest five-storied pagoda, which was originally built over a thousand years ago, is also here – but there’s little question that the deer are the main draw.

A brief history lesson

Nara’s deer have historically been on friendly terms with humans in the area.

In 1177, Kujo Kanezane, a nobleman visiting the area with his family, encountered a herd of deer with his traveling party. Upon seeing the deer approach, a young boy got out of his carriage and bowed to them.

Then in 1189, Kanezane, the head of the Fujiware clan, was surveying the rebuilding of the temple on the site when a deer appeared inside the main hall. In his journal he wrote, “I was momentarily bewildered, then joined my hands and bowed to the deer.” From then the deer were considered a lucky signal.

In search of treats, the animals confidently approach visitors.

By the 1500s, thousands of deer roamed the city unchecked and revered. In this era, hunting the deer was punishable by death. Anyone who violated this decree had their property confiscated and their lineage cut off.

While this sentence hasn’t been officially carried out since 1637, penalties remain. In 2010 a 40-year-old man was sentenced to 10 months in prison for killing a deer in the park with a crossbow.

Unique petting zoo

Shika-senbei (special deer rice crackers) are available for tourists to purchase.

Today the deer are generally peaceful, and their impressive bows are a delightful sight to behold. Soft baby deer frolic in the open park, and even larger bucks enjoy being pet.

Synonymous with the city of Nara, these divine creatures are also in control. This is their home, and humans are just passing through.

In search of treats, the animals confidently approach visitors.

Over the years, they’ve learned to exchange a bow for a shika-senbei (special deer rice crackers available from vendors at the park). The deer often crowd the vendors, aware of the source of their beloved snacks.

These interactions have produced myriad hilarious and touching pictures and videos for tourists wanting to capture their time in Nara.

The deer often crowd the vendors, aware that they are the source of their beloved snacks.

The deer mimic more than just bows though, and many will even wait alongside people at intersections between sections of the park, waiting for the crossing lights to change.

The most conniving, in search of more treats, make their way to the entrance near the temples and distract tourists from making it too far into the grounds. Posing stoically in front of the temples, awaiting the influx of visitors in this section, they’ve somehow learned that offering themselves up for the perfect Instagram shot will earn them plenty of attention and rice treats.

Posing stoically the deer seemed to have learned that offering themselves up for the perfect Instagram shot will earn them plenty of attention and rice treats.

When you wave “bye-bye,” the deer wander off. Some get the deer sign-language better than others, which can become pushy when visitors begin to back away. Watch for pocket-poking and getting bumped from behind.

Recent altercations

While the deer are nearly always impressively tame and welcoming to visitors, the recent influx of travelers has put a strain on the tradition of the normally docile creatures.

Soft baby deer enjoy being pet.

Foreign visitors to the park have increased nearly tenfold between 2012-2017. With the crowds, reported injuries, including bone fractures, are on the rise.

Aware of these issues, the Nara Prefectural Government has installed updated safety signs throughout the grounds explaining how to behave around the deer.

A lot of it feels like common sense: Don’t withhold snacks; don’t tease the deer; don’t refuse them a snack after they offer a proper bow. They’re complicated creatures too, and allowing them to perform for you without delivering the expected reward can cause confusion, and sometimes, anger and aggression.

Know before you go

After a tourist lull, a rush of visitors can translate to very enthusiastic animals.

In September to November, the risk comes from bucks pursuing mates during rutting season. From mid-May to July, does will aggressively protect their fawns. Still, the park remains open and welcoming to visitors during these periods.

Keep a close eye on belongings, and know that in their quest for shika-senbei, the deer will happily dig through bags, purses, even strollers. For this reason, you shouldn’t display any loose food or consume snacks in front of the deer. Use your best judgment when it comes to the little ones.

It’s crucial to be aware of your surroundings. While one animal is enjoying the treats, others will surely take notice and begin to crowd. It’s not ideal to be stuck with a herd of hungry deer when you’re out of shika-senbei.

It’s best to feed them one at a time, and when more join, and you’ve run out of snacks, that’s when you know to it’s time to wave bye-bye.

CNN Travel Contributor Joshua Mellin is a writer and photographer based in Chicago. While traveling in Japan he subsists primarily on Family Mart katsu sandos and Ichiran Ramen. He has survived countless visits to Nara Park.