Nara: The Open Air Deer Park

Nara was our first family trip in Japan. From the moment I heard of a place where deer run wild and interact with the locals, I knew we had to see it for ourselves.

I spent four years living in The Carolinas of America. While I’m not originally from the south, I understand that hunting and eating deer is a culturally accepted practice in that region of the States. A far cry from how they’re treated in Nara, Japan.

Deer are sacred in Nara, like the American Bald Eagle.

We jumped in the car and drove six hours to Nara, where we’d spend three days exploring the area and it’s neighboring city, Kyoto. I’ll talk about Kyoto in the future. We choose to stay in Nara for inexpensive lodging, thinking we could easily take the train over to Kyoto and explore the city in a day.

Nope. Kyoto is not a day trip. We barely scratched the surface.

We stayed in a typically tiny apartment close to the Nara train station. If you didn’t know, many Japanese apartments are the size of a western bedroom. Of course, they’re bigger places out there, but most locals are accustomed to living in extremely small spaces.

Considering we planned to spend most of our days outside exploring, the size of the apartment was not a problem.

Nara park home to one of the largest wooden buildings in the world, Toudai-ji (とうだいじ – The Great Eastern Temple).

You also have other temples to check out in the park, so be prepared to do a lot of walking.

And as stated earlier, you’ll find many deer roaming around. The first one we came across was seated on the side of the road . As you progress further into the park, you’ll encounter more deer along the journey. Walking about, taking food from visitors and drinking water from the stream that runs along the road.

Unforunately, our first encounter with the deer wasn’t pleasant.

We headed out to the park early in the morning. It might’ve been between the hours of 0700 and 0800. And like I said, they’re right there at the entrance to the park.

We wanted to feed the deer. So we found a vendor that sold deer cookies, and what’s interesting was that the deer were watching us. As soon as we moved towards the vendor cart, some got up and walked to the cart too. And as soon was we had the snacks in hand, they started pulling at my wife’s dress for what was in her hand.

She instantly dropped the cookies, picked up our daughter and briskly walked in the opposite direction. It was an alarming encounter. Reflecting on it now, I’m actually glad we didn’t have the chance to put cookies in our daughters hands, because the deer probably would’ve snapped at her instead of us.

Nara is NOT a petting zoo, it’s a nature reserve.

Our early morning encounter dictated how we handled ourselves for the rest of the day. We still had fun, my kid even warmed up to feeding deer with assistance. We just always made sure not to have any deer snacks visible and progressed with healthy vigilance.

At one point, I came across two deer inside a small shack while the proprietor was cleaning and setting up for the day. Both deer were scratching themselves using the edge of a table. It was amazing to see them so casually inside. And the lack of response from the woman inside. They left the building only after seeing me, thinking I had snacks to feed them.

If you could squeeze Nara into your Japanese adventure, I’d definitely recommend it. Of course, be careful with your small children.

You can definitely tackle Nara in a day. Everything that’s worth visiting is centralized in Nara Park. Despite our adverse introduction to the deer, the experience was overall positive. We laughed about it later. It was a learning experience. We were literally humbled by the deer.

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