Deer. They are what Nara are famous for, and they’re what thousands of visitors come to see. Considered the messengers of the gods in Shintō, the deer are designated a national treasure, and there are strict rules on interacting with them posted throughout the park.
By “rules” I mean “warnings”. You see, the deer are allowed to come and go as they wish, and you can buy crackers (sembei) to feed them with. They’ve become very accustomed to traffic stopping for them and people feeding them, and as such they can be persistent little buggers. As the old saying goes, give an inch and they will take a mile, which is of the utmost hilarity once you’ve learned that anything in your hands is free food regardless of its edibility and have swiftly learned not to hold things in your hands, and you see other people who haven’t yet worked this out.
They’re undeniably cute, and there are thousands of them. They’ll bite your butt to get your attention, so wear jeans to protect from firm teeth. They’ll steal anything you put down and attempt to consume it. They will eat the lunch you just bought for yourself. I watched a pair of tourists utterly helpless (partly with laughter, partly with amazement) as a deer ate their map of Nara. It was a pretty sizeable map, too.
Several vendors sell shika sembei (literally deer crackers), and the deer know it. Once they witness you exchange one thing for another thing at a known vendor, they will mob you. The vendors are inviolate – each guards their goods from the deer with a broom and stern words – but you? You are now laden with tasty, tasty sembei, and you have no broom. Prepare for a mugging!
I found it best to have a partner in crime: One of you performs the transaction, and sneaks the stack of sembei under your armpit to the partner who is standing closely behind. Partner stuffs sembei out of sight and wanders away. The deer will inspect the person who handed notes over to the vendor, and he or she may display empty hands to the deer for a sniff, who will give up after a few desultory nibbles of their sleeve or bum. This leaves you both safe to wander away and dispense sembei to the deer further into the park, where you may find some deer who have learned to bow to ask for sembei.
The park is extremely popular with school trips from surrounding areas, and contains many of Nara’s other attractions: Todaiji, Kasuga Taisha, Kofukuji and the Nara National Museum. It is littered with stalls selling cute souvenirs largely aimed at the continuous flow of schoolchildren – toys and kawaii goods with deer overtones. I picked up a great deer hat with little antlers.
The park has a few ponds dotted around the sculpted landscape.
Toward the rear of the park is Nandaimon Gate. It leads to the Daibutsuden (Great Buddha Hall) and is itself a national treasure.
The park officially covers just over 500 hectares of land, but when you include the temples, shrines, museums and halls that border the park the total area comes to about 660 hectares. It’s very easy to spend a couple of days exploring the park and the monuments and sights within it.
Visiting Nara Park:
The park is a 10 minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station, and 20 minutes from JR Nara Station. It is clearly signposted from both, but there is also a tourist information booth outside JR Nara Station whose staff are very friendly and helpful, and who can provide you with free maps of the area, as well as directions.