Travel: A curious history of Nara’s holy deer

Travel: A curious history of Nara's holy deer

Nara has had sacred significance long into the ancient mists of time in Japan. Long before Tokyo and Kyoto became the capital of Japan, Nara reigned as the most important city in Japan, its capital from 710-784 AD, before this mantle was passed on to Kyoto.

By decree of the emperor of Japan in 724AD, Nara was to be transformed into a magnificent and mythical city with gold gilded roofs, pillars and walls. All of the city’s wealthy Shogun classes were tasked with this.

The collection of eight majestic shrines and an ancient primeval forest in the city are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage site.  These shrines are Tōdai-ji, Saidai-ji, Kasuga Shrine, Kōfuku-ji, Gangō-ji, Tōshōdai-ji, Yakushi-ji, and the Heijō Palace, together with the Kasugayama Primeval Forest. 

Nara seems like a smaller and more quaint version of Kyoto. And infact it was never declared to be an actual city until 1898.

My video from Nara

Nara’s plentiful little shops and ryokans are actually renovated and adapted traditional merchant houses. And so the traditional village life of Nara remains, albeit in a newer form.

Nara’s Deer: Messengers of the gods or furry sociopaths?

Japanese culture coexists very comfortably alongside the the spiritual world and in the mists between come lolloping and frolicking, Nara’s deer. Around a millennia ago, the magnificent Shinto deity Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto rode into Nara on the back of a beautiful white deer.

After this, legend tells that  he enchanted the area with the spirit of the Sika deer. Once he died, Takekazuchi-no-mikoto was enshrined with three other Gods in Kasuga Taisha temple. As the prevailing deity of the shrine, Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto began sending spiritual messengers in the form of Sika deer to watch over the temples and grounds ever since then.

Travel: A curious history of Nara's holy deer
Cute icon or furry sociopath?

Each morning as the dew sets on the leaves of the trees, hundreds of deer tip-toe tentatively out of the mountain forest to repose and also gather food in Nara Park. After hundreds of years of subsisting from humans giving them food, they aren’t truly wild deer anymore. Humans brandishing specially designed biscuits are their targets.

The real reason that any tourist goes to Nara is to visit these deer. Many of the younger and more sprightly deer are fluffy and vulnerable looking on their spindly little legs and wide gentle eyes. They are the very definition of cute.

Then, as they become older , the deer take on a harder and more cynical look. Almost how you would imagine a 30-a-day-Winfield Red-smoking call centre consultant would look after 40 hours straight on the phone with a colostomy bag stuck to their leg, and only some red bulls to stay awake.

Get up close to the older ones and they have puss-filled eye infections and messed up horn nubs where their horns have been removed by the rangers to prevent them from doing what nature intended horns for. Their gawping cries (for attention, biscuits, not sure?) sound as though they are drunk and slightly unhinged. They are only a faint shadow of their younger selves. There is something tragicomic about them, poor hapless little buggers.

Travel: A curious history of Nara's holy deer

The deer are poised and ready to bite your hand and take your deer biscuits away from you by pure force. They have a mad glint in their eyes and their saliva drips out of their mouth hungrily at you – evil biscuit holder.

Travel: A curious history of Nara's holy deer

Sorry, I hope I haven’t destroyed anyone’s cutesy anime dream about the deer in Nara. Yes, the deer are gentle, noble messengers of the spirit world. Until you reveal a biscuit and their eyes light up and they turn into deranged rabid ring-wraiths. 

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

6 thoughts on “Travel: A curious history of Nara’s holy deer

    1. I went a bit far with that analogy there I am glad you found it funny though hehe. They must have been on some sort of meds when you were there then hehehe, or maybe someone has introduced them to meth since you visited?


  1. Yes, possibly a karma for something they did in a past life coming to bite them…bitten by horned gods of the temple…how funny


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