The City Deer and the Country Deer


I grew up in the country, so it’s important to me that my city-girl daughter grows up with a healthy respect for animals. That may have taken root too well: she wants to adopt one of every animal she comes across.

When Sorrell was little, she wanted a deer. She spun a whole scenario that when we visited my parents, she would capture one of the white-tailed deer who came down to drink at the creek. She would put the deer in a sack and carry it on the plane back to San Francisco, where it would become her pet and live in our backyard.

She drew lots of pictures to illustrate key parts of the plan.

Now that she’s almost 11, she probably doesn’t remember the plot to capture a deer, but she hasn’t lost her love for hoofed animals.

The Mascot of Nara welcomes us to the right track in Kyoto.
Nara’s mascot welcomes us to the right track in Kyoto.

When we decided to go to Japan this summer, I knew we’d have to go to Nara, which served as the first capital of ancient Japan in 710 CE. Now the city is probably most widely known for the deer that roam its parks, looking to be fed by hand.

My husband Mason had visited Nara before, when his band toured Japan, but the trip to Nara would be an adventure for Sorrell and me. Thanks to a discount deal, we spent the night at the opulent Hotel Ana in Kyoto, then took a local train for the half-hour trip to Nara. We knew we’d reached the correct train platform because it was guarded by a deer boy, the mascot of Nara.

Mason ducked into the tourist information office at Nara Station to find out where the deer were. The woman merely directed us to walk up the main street. We’d only walked five minutes or so before we saw what we call a “dancing deer” warning sign in the middle of the main road.

At the next intersection sat a little elderly woman with a heavy metal cart, selling deer crackers. As soon as Mason paid 150 yen (about a $1.50) for ten shika senbei—flower-shaped wafers as large as the palm of your hand—deer appeared as if by magic. Sorrell couldn’t break the paper strip wrapping the crackers quickly enough. They crowded in, eager to snatch whole crackers from her hand.

A nearby sign warned that the deer were still wild creatures. Its pictographs demonstrated deer kicking or knocking people over. It didn’t warn that they might also bite. One nipped Sorrell’s back when she ran out of crackers.

The bite didn’t seem to break her skin, although it did look like it would bruise, especially where the deer’s eyeteeth sank through her t-shirt. I washed her back with Purell, but when Sorrell didn’t wince, I thought we were pretty safe. The bite didn’t deter her from wanting to buy a second round of crackers. Mason convinced her to move on to another cluster of deer, which might be better behaved.

Walking up to Todaiji
Walking up to Todaiji’s gate

At the next street corner sat another cracker seller. We bought more senbei to feed the deer in that park. There we fed does with fawns almost as large as themselves and bucks with velvety antlers. I’d only ever seen antlers after they’d been harvested, but these living ones were hot and soft to the touch. The deer didn’t seem to mind us touching their antlers. I wondered if they’d be more sensitive in the fall.

Sorrell wanted to cuddle with the deer, to pet them—and some of the deer permitted it. Most of them, though, were only in the relationship for the crackers.

In Shinto, the native Japanese religion, deer are considered messengers of the gods. Ever since a deity called Takemikazuchi no Mikoto rode into the old capital on the back of a white deer to act as Nara’s protector, Nara’s deer have been considered sacred. As many as 1200 of them live in and around the city. Apparently, it’s not uncommon to find them hanging out in the shops or public restrooms, although we didn’t. The deer have been designated as a national treasure.

The Daibutsu
The Daibutsu

Mason led us past Nara Park to the Todaiji temple with its giant bronze Buddha. Buddhists built the temple in 752 CE to serve as the head of all provincial Buddhist temples in Japan. In a little more than 30 years, the temple grew so powerful that the capital of Japan was moved away from Nara, as a way to lessen the temple’s influence over the government.

Todaiji temple’s Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is the largest wooden building in the world, even though it is only two-thirds the size of the original temple. The seated Buddha inside is almost five stories tall. I was glad to have the opportunity to talk to Sorrell about the different religions in the world.

She was respectful, but clearly the deer had won her heart. Outside the temple once again, we bought some more crackers before ducking into a restaurant for an udon lunch. Afterward, we bought still more deer crackers on our way back to the train station. Sorrell asked if, next time we visit Japan, we can stay in Nara, so she could feed the deer morning and night.

Her dad and I agreed. We’d rather stay in Nara overnight than have to smuggle a deer home in a sack.

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