05 May 2016

Nara (Japan) - Deer Moments at Nara Park

Date of Heavy Petting : 2 Apr 2016

“Okay, enough. This will be the last deer photo or we won’t have time to check out the other sights in Nara,” I announced after umpteenth shots of the critters.

“Yes, we should keep moving and not stop to take more photos of the deer,” Lucas agreed while contorted in an awkward squat to frame yet another deer portrait.

After we reached that agreement, I lost count of the number of times we repeatedly made those statements to each other, over and over again.  

We just couldn't stop ourselves from taking photos because the deer are just too adorable!

You know how it is almost impossible to get an animal to look into the camera when taking a wefie and this just happened! Priceless :o)
Deer being such timid and elusive animals who shy well away from human contact, I was rather apprehensive about our chances of up-close encounters but my fears were unnecessary. Deer are everywhere! There are adult male deer (buck), female deer (doe) and their younglings (fawn) all over the park.

We encountered our first deer not too far a walk from Kintetsu Nara Station (the nearest train station to the park) and it was non-stop snapping of those furballs from then on.

Warning... Cuteness ahead.

There are around 1,200 free-roaming wild deer in the park and they are considered a national treasure in Japan. In Shinto (a Japanese folk religion), the deer is a messenger of the gods and held in high regard, much like cows are sacred to Hindus.

Other than posing for photos with the deer, we could also feed and for some, pet them. The deer we came across were mostly very tame with a couple who nibbed at my t-shirt to be fed special deer biscuits that are sold around the park.

A sure way to attract the deer to you is to arm yourself with shika sembei (deer biscuits). A bundle sells for ¥150 and there are vendors selling them throughout the park. This obasan was rather fierce though, don't attempt taking a photo of her and the biscuits unless you want to be scolded. If I spoke Japanese, I would tell her that I only wanted on record of how a biscuit sales station looks like.

As soon as I got the biscuit, a buck suddenly became my biggest fan and wouldn't let me out of his sight.
Deer Feeding at Nara Park

There is a special technique when feeding Nara's deer. You can make them bow before being given the shika sembei. Here's how...

Step 1 : Break a small piece of the biscuit and hold it over the head of the deer, beyond its reach. It will start to bow its head. You can then reward it with the treat or...

Step 2 : Put your hand with the biscuit behind your back. The deer should bow a second time.

Step 3 : Then place the biscuit over its head again like Step 1 and the deer will bow a third time. That's when you give it the biscuit.

I placed a biscuit piece over the head of a buck and it bowed! So polite! But mostly, to cut short the teasing process process, most of the deer automatically start bowing when they see you holding treats.

This was one of the earliest deer I encountered and fed it the most. It started to follow me around for a bit. Such a dear it was. Being at Nara Park felt like walking into a huge play pen of cute furry pets.
Endeering Moments

The species at Nara Park is known as Sika Deer (Japanese spotted deer) that are reddish brown in colour with spots on their backs (think Bambi). In Mandarin, they are known as 梅花鹿 (plum blossom deer). However, the deer grow a coat of thicker brownish coat which hides their spots during winter.

We came during the sakura season in Japan (late March to early April when winter transits to spring) and the deer have yet to shed their winter coat so we didn't see the characteristic spots. The species is also sometimes known as whitetail because, well, the following photo explains it...

We saw an elderly couple who were like the godparents to the deer because they just gathered around them and allowed them to stroke, touch and caress them. When I tried to do that, even with the biscuits, the welcome was still wary.

梅花鹿与梅花树! The sakuras were in bloom and made for a wonderful backdrop to photograph the deer. What's not so wonderful was the hordes of tourists during Japan's busy cherry blossom season.

A fawn that was molting its winter fur and sprouting little antlers on its head. Adult bucks in Nara Park have their antlers cut-off yearly during a ceremony in October. The cutting of the antlers is a safety precaution for visitors as the antlers are actually weapons of the deer deployed during mating season to battle for the right to inseminate females.

The antlers go through a growth cycle of about a year where they become fully formed by winter and automatically drop off during spring for a new set to grow. When the antlers are in their growing phase, they are covered in a coat of velvety hair that transports blood and oxygen to form the antlers. The material used to grow the antlers are similar to the organic material of human fingernails. Once the antlers mature, where blood supply no longer feed their growth, they start to harden and die off so cutting the antlers at this stage does no harm to the animal. It's just like us cutting our finger or toe nails.


A buck peeping out from the corridor of stone lanterns at Kasuga Taisha Shrine. The shrine is one of the key attractions at Nara and presents a markedly different backdrop to photograph the deer in. So fortunate to bump into the moment when this fella popped its head out in the cutest manner with ears pointing forward!

A buck and his doe. It's not easy to meet a partner who will be by your side. Sika Deer are not monogamous and bucks will mate with more than one female. But it's nice to see this pair being soul mates, even if it's just temporary.

The deer at Nara are wild animals so they retain their basal instincts even though they are accustomed to humans. The older are familiar with tourists and can be aggressive in demanding biscuit treats but the younger fawns don't like human contact and will sprint away if people get too close. But they are the cutest and hard to resist a more intimate encounter.

I stood in place for quite some time with biscuits in hand to make this pair comfortable with me before taking this up-close shot of the young ones.

If a deer is sleeping, I would refrain from going close to them to allow them their rest but I swear these were awake when I approached for a shot and petting them. I think they were closing their eyes hoping for a sweet dream rather than the nightmare that has descended. LOL. But seriously, if a deer is sleeping, leave it alone and let it rest.

Coming to Nara and meeting the resident wild Sika Deer was one of the crowning highlights of my trip to Japan because it is not everyday that we can get so intimate with these docile, gentle beasts.

Oh what dear (deer) moments to remember a trip to Japan by! :o)

Related Posts :

Kasuga Taisha Shrine of Lanterns 

Todaiji : The Great Eastern Temple of Shingon Buddhism

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