Sunday, July 26, 2015

Oh, Deer!

During my recent trip to Japan, I spent a day in Nara, the capital city of Nara Prefecture and one of Japan's most important historical cities.

Nara lies about an hour south of Kyoto--slightly less if you take a direct train out of Kyoto station. It was the capital of Japan during the "Nara period," which lasted from 710-794.

Today, Nara remains a major tourist stop for Japanese nationals and foreigners alike. It is the home of Todaiji, a Buddhist temple that dates to 728 and houses the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana.

 The Japanese call the statue "Daibutsu" ("giant buddha"), and the hall which houses it, "Daibutsuden."

Daibutsuden - home of the giant Buddha

During our visit, my son crawled through a hole in one of the Daibutsuden pillars which measures the same diameter as the nostrils of the giant buddha (18", in case you were wondering). According to legend, passing safely through the Buddha's nostril means your soul will reach enlightenment.

Finding enlightenment by escaping the Buddha's nose.

In the case of my 6'2" son, it also means you'll get a loud ovation from the crowds around the nostril.

We also visited Kasuga Taisha, a famous Shinto shrine that will feature heavily in one of my upcoming novels--and also, another blog post here at MIE, so I'll leave that story for another day.

Main gate of Kasuga Taisha

Another of Nara's unique attractions--and one that draws almost as many tourists as the historical sites--are the sacred deer.

That's not a cow, deer...

Sika (which, in Japanese, means "deer") are sacred to Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, one of the four gods enshrined and honored at Kasuga Taisha. According to Japanese history (which mixes with legend the farther back you go), Takemikazuchi appeared in the area riding a white deer many years ago, and the deer which remain are the descendants of that sacred steed.

Killing, or even harming, a sacred deer in the Nara region was punishable by death until the 17th century, and they were officially considered sacred until after World War II. At that point, the deer lost their official status as sacred animals--but received the designation "national treasure," so it's still illegal to harm or molest the deer. (Deer molesters, take note.)

Is that a cracker I hear?

Today, it's legal to feed the deer, provided you purchase "deer crackers" ("BAD TASTE FOR HUMANS," according to the signs) from one of the licensed vendors in Nara Park.

The deer know this, and also know when someone is purchasing crackers. They will swarm you until the crackers are gone--and woe betide the unfortunate soul who tries to hide one in a pocket, or run away.

He bought crackers...

They will hunt you down like fuzzy, wet-nosed terminators.

These people have no crackers.

Ironically, the deer have also learned the universal sign for "please don't mug me, I have no cookies and I surrender." Raise your open hands in the air, and the crowd dissipates immediately--or at least, as soon as they've sniffed your pockets and tucked a nose up the back of your shirt to ensure there isn't a cracker in hiding somewhere.

The deer have no objection to being touched, and some of them walk over like dogs, hoping for a pat or a scratch behind the ears (or a cracker, if you don't mind...). I'd heard about them before my trip, and "seeing a deer up close" was high on my list of hoped-for events.

Dozing under the trees...dreaming of crackers.
I did buy crackers--and did get to pet them--and seeing them up close was even better than I hoped.

No bicycles...Yes deer.

As it turned out, I also saw--and petted--the sacred deer on Miyajima Island, which are more relaxed than their counterparts in Nara (perhaps due to the total absence of deer-cracker sales on that island, so the only reason for deer to approach a person is the aforementioned scratch around the ears).

Relaxing on Miyajima Island

Whether they're mugging you in Nara, or just hanging out on Miyajima, sika are special. And, at least to me, it's not very difficult to see why.

Yes, he really did try to follow us in for lunch.

-- Susan, who finds the sika quite...en-deer-ing.


  1. Susan, for years I have referred to deer as vermin. Here in the Northeast they are a terrible pest--carrying deadly diseases, causing automobile accidents--fatal and otherwise, eating peoples gardens and shrubbery. Here I HATE them.

    But those gentle Japanese critters? How beautiful, how peaceful they look--off the highways, free of infected ticks, and with nobody's prized yellow lilies in their mouths. I would even buy them a cracker!!

    1. I remember the deer problems we had in the Northeast when I lived both in and outside Boston - so I completely understand.

      The Japanese sika is about 35% smaller than our American Whitetail Deer, and they're not known to have a problem with ticks, which is lovely. Also, they're very friendly, as opposed to the hoof-slashings you hear about occasionally on the East Coast.

      I fell in love with the Japanese deer. They'd probably eat your lilies, but they'd look pretty cute doing it.

      Also - iN Nara, I saw the gardeners at the park trimming back the invasive and fast-growing Kudzu vines. They threw the trimmings to the deer, who seemed to like them almost as much as deer crackers. Anything that eats Kudzu gets extra points in my book!

  2. I don't mean to fawn over you, Susan--surprised EvKa missed that one--but your piece is precisely the sort that would have made our founder Leighton proud! And I mention that only because two-years ago today the Big Guy passed on...a most enlightened soul indeed.

    1. I remember hearing Annamaria speak fondly of Leighton, so it's high praise indeed to know you think he would have liked it. :)

    2. Also? Somehow I knew you'd bring a new pun to the party...It's one of your more endeering qualities.

  3. Lovely blog Susan.
    What do you call a deer with no eyes?
    No Idea.

    Have a lovely day,


    1. OK, that's hilarious. I'm off to share it with my son, who will probably groan--and then go share it with someone else.

  4. Your son deserved the crowd's aplause. That had to take some nerve for a person of his height. And nice picture of him emerging!

    1. Thank you! He did give me some nervous glances as he approached the pillar (there was a line). Most of the people waiting to go through were middle-school students at least a foot shorter, and many pounds lighter, than he. The gasps and laughter and applause when he made it were delightful.

  5. My husband and I are going to Japan this fall and Nara is on our list! I've really been enjoying all of your blogs about your trip to Japan. It sounds like you had a wonderful time. Thanks for sharing :-)