Nature in All Its Glory

Adorable Animal Report: Beautiful Bowing Japanese Deer

by Daniel Schwartz

As cute as they are, they're still wild animals. All photos by Daniel Schwartz. 

Apart from top-notch travel finds, we keep our eyes out for cute animals. Because nothing brings people together like soft fur and big eyes. Fathom's Daniel Schwartz tells of the ups and downs of friendship with the fluffy spotted dear of Nara, Japan.

NARA, Japan – There were many moments on my recent family trip to Kyoto — the city of too many temples, old teahouses, and excellent restaurants to fit into a seven-day stay — that threatened to derail my ambitious itinerary. I had time slots for every temple and mode of transport down to a science, but I couldn't foresee the delays caused by cats in cafe windows, passing babies with extra-chubby cheeks, tiny paper products, and well-packaged wagashi, traditional sweets that resemble art in taste and appearance.

It seemed that nobody cared about old-wood detailing when a manicured poodle in a sweatshirt was walking their way. And that was fine with me, because I planned the most kawaii moment of them all — a full day with the fluffy, friendly, and feisty wild deer of Nara.

The ancient city, one hour by train from Kyoto, has all the temples, shrines, and elegance you'd expect from a former capital of Japan, but it's best known for the booming population of sika deer that live in Nara Park, a 500-hectare green space on the east side of town.

The free-roaming deer are adorable, with spotted fur that gets dark in the winter, and chubby around the pouch from the wafers they're fed by tourists looking for a selfie and some cuddling. The wafers, which I suspect are pure sugar that any animal (including myself) would enjoy, are sold by small old ladies at stands around the park and are the keys to Bambi's heart. The curious creatures have a sweet tooth and will, without hesitation, come to anyone holding treats.

In miraculous Japanese fashion, these dainty creatures bow when they want more food. It's insanely cute, humbling, and mind-blowing all at the same time. (Watch the video below.) How did they acquire this behavior? My guess is simple conditioning. The deer are considered messengers of the gods in Shinto religion, and legend has it that noblemen would bow to the beings on their way to the city's shrines. The tradition coupled with our propensity to feed cute animals would explain their seemingly intentional bowing.

Another theory posits that bowing signals an incoming attack, which occasionally happens to the dismay of the instigator (a guilty pleasure of all watching). Some of my favorite moments involved laughing at people being chased around by teams of hungry deer, wafers waving high overhead. But of course, karma deals swift blows, and soon I was blessed with a soft head-butt in the behind (take my advice and don't zone out with cookies in your pocket) before having another deer eat her way through my paper bag. (I lost my battery pack through that hole later in the day.) Comical signs around the park remind tourists that as cute as deer are, they are wild animals capable of kicking, biting, head-butting, and tackling. As if I needed any reminder.

While the deer run the show, there are other ways to spend an afternoon in town. Also inside Nara Park is Todai-ji, one of the world's largest wooden buildings and a five-story bronze Buddha; and Kasuga Taisha, a Shinto shrine shrouded in wild forest that's famous for the thousands of stone lanterns that line its approach. Naramachi, the former merchant district, is lined with Edo-period townhouses, boutiques, and restaurants.

And don't worry about deer separation anxiety. They are everywhere. Waiting for tourists near the train station. Trotting by food stalls in the park. Hiding behind lanterns near the shrine. Sleeping by ponds by the temple. Looking for your friendship the cookies in your pocket.



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