Nara Park: Where Japanese Deer Roam Free
In the time of myth, the god of thunder, Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto, appeared atop a white deer on the summit of Mt. Mikasa outside the city of Nara. One of the four gods central to Nara's Kasuga Shrine, Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto's appearance lent divinity to all of Nara's deer and delightful inhabitants.
Since the 1300s, the base of Mt. Mikasa (also known as Mount Wakakusa) has hosted the sprawling and gorgeous Nara Park. Though complete with the world's largest wooden structure, a massive Buddha, and numerous temples, the park's, and Nara's, main draw are the over 1,000 freely roaming wild deer.
Reaching Nara is a cinch from both Kyoto and Osaka. From Kyoto, one can take either the JR Nara line or the Kintetsu Nara Line. The JR Nara Line express (kaisoku) takes approximately 45 minutes, while the Kintetsu Nara Line express (tokkyu) takes approximately 35 minutes.
From Osaka, one can take either the JR Kanjo-Yamatoji Line or the Kintetsu Nara Line. For the JR, take the Yamatoji Kaisoku (express), which should reach Nara in approximately 50 minutes. Meanwhile, the Kintetsu Nara Line will reach the city in approximately 40 minutes.
Although the deer were stripped of their divinity following the end of World War II, these deer still know the way the cookie crumbles. Now recognized as national treasures, these waist-high deer radiate the comfortable harmony that only an animal still treated as sacred can possess.
Speaking of cookies, vendors throughout both Nara proper and the park sell special deer cookies (鹿せんべい). Accustomed to generations of pampering, the deer do not shy away at the slightest of eating out of your hand, following you incessantly hoping for food, or trying to steal crackers of your pocket while you’re looking the other way. The more "polite" deer will bow their heads when about to be fed (especially if you bow to them first), a habit learned over hundreds of years.
Essentially, these deer got spunk — and they’re not afraid to call down the thunder (of their adorable doe eyes) if they don’t get their way.
Generally on the fourth Saturday of each January, the dead grass on Mount Wakakusa in Nara Park is set alight in the annual Yamayaki (mountain roast) festival. The ceremony begins with members of the Tōdai-ji and Kōfuku-ji temples setting the dead grass closest to their temples alight — the controlled burn ultimately kills off all the dead grass on the mountain, leading to a fresh green mountain in the spring. The festival is also marked with fireworks.