I encountered Japan’s sacred Sika deer twice during my trip; at Miyajima and at Nara. Encountered. Their Bambi eyes and adorable squeaks had me smitten. But the reality of their circumstances is not as sweet as their faces, and frankly it’s a deer eat deer world out there. Let me tell you my tale in the form of a delightful comic strip…
Deer are revered in Japan, especially in sacred places such as Miyajima island and the hills of Nara. They are said to be messengers of the Gods, an idea that stems from the legend of Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto, a deity to a Nara shrine who is believed to have ridden a white deer. Instead of finding the deer being pampered in the midst of a lavish natural habitat or at least far from the dangers of city life, you are much more likely to find them loitering at road sides chewing on rubbish or harassing tourists for scraps. Not that the tourists mind, they’re happy to fork out for special deer biscuits in the hopes of capturing a few choice snapshots. Much like the city foxes that inhabit my part of the world, the deer’s tameness is more like street-savvy opportunism and chutzpah. Given the environment they live in it is hard to begrudge them a little cheekiness. To be clear, the deer was not attempting to viciously bite me, it was tugging on my clothes to get my attention and got a bit carried away.
The reality is the deer are starving. They have practically forgotten how to feed themselves in the forest and there is little vegetation for them to feed from anyway. They have come to rely on humans for food, via garbage and handouts, and have become a pest as a result. Humans are now completely banned from feeding the deer on Miyajima island in an effort to force a reduction of the deer population by cutting off their primary source of food. According to an article from Oddity Central (April 2014) Japanese veterinarians have offered to neuter the deer for free in order to humanely reduce the population but have been ignored by officials who claim that nature will take care of it. This will result in unhealthy animals eating rubbish or not eating at all.
So myself and the deer are on good terms now. It was a really enjoyable experience being so close to them, they are generally calm and beautiful animals (although super impatient if you have crackers… in a cute way). Their presence added greatly to the sacred atmosphere of Nara and Miyajima. Check out my post on Miyajima here.
Check out my Japan photos here.