Many tourists travel around Japan hoping to encounter some of its beautiful wildlife. They might want to see macaques relaxing in an onsen, a Tanuki streaking across the road or even a majestic Japanese deer.
Deer are a sacred animal in ancient Japanese shintoism and are worshipped today by tourists for their cute features. They are known for being incredibly polite and bowing their head to any passers by in the hopes of getting some food. But in truth this polite head bow is not polite at all, it is in fact a head butt waiting to happen.
The deer of Japan are not the shy peaceful creature that are depicted in the media, they are thieves who will take you for all your worth. They will snatch the food out your hand, eat the guide map out of your pocket, chase you if you try to move away, even head butt you until you go and buy more food for them. For those coming to Japan expecting a calm and serene atmosphere, don’t tangle with the deer.
That being said they are still a big part of many tourist attractions, sometimes unavoidably so. You can’t visit Nara or Miyajima without being swarmed by the criminal pests. Many tourists forgive their terrible greed because of their cute faces and still believe they can have a good experience with them. So lets compare the different herds around the country and find the friendliest deer in Japan.
What Deer Will You Find in Japan?
The deer in Japan are called Shika
deer, but might also be known as Spotted deer or Japanese deer. The third name is incredibly inaccurate as they are native to more than just Japan, appearing all across east Asia. They have also been introduced by humans to the Americas, Australia and Europe.
Shika can be identified by their white spots. Most types of deer lose these as they mature where as the Shika’s summer coat still has them. In the winters the deer’s coat can get thicker and darker, this is especially true for the deer on the cold island of Hokkaido.
100yen on Wikimedia Commons
All deer in Japan are Shika deer but there are six different subspecies. The deer in Hokkaido are know as Ezo-shika, those on the islands of Honshu and Shikoku are called Honshu-jika. Between Honshu and Korea there is an island called Tsushima that has Tsushima-jika. In Kyushu there are Kyushu-jika and Yaku-shika and Kerama-jika can be found on the Okinawan island chain. You can rarely tell the difference between these deer but they do have slightly different coats and live in very different environments.
The Nara deer are the deer that most visitors to Japan meet. These guys hang around the sacred town of Nara looking for free food. There are several fascinating shrines and temples in Nara, the deer began living here once they realized the monks would feed them. These deer also learnt how to bow like Japanese monks because that way the humans gave them more food. They continue to do this today but now they are bowing at tourists who come to see the ancient temples.
The town has tried to use this to its advantage and uses the deer as mascots on advertisements to the area. It is a selling point to go and interact with such friendly wild deer, but they are not friendly. They only want to use you for your food.
There are cracker salesmen who make a living by selling deer food to tourists. They sell the food and then the deer pressure tourists to feed them as fast as possible, sometimes knocking the crackers out of their hands if they are not being quick enough. It is like some kind of big scam run by the deer and the cracker salesmen to get you to buy more.
Once you run out of crackers the deer will change their bow to a headbutt and ram into you if they think you still have food. They will even chase those who tried to escape. Very few people get hurt but gangs of deer gently headbutting you can get intimidating fast. Your only hope for escape is if they see another sucker who bought more crackers, they will go after them instead.
That being said they are quite happy for your to pet them, get up close with them or photograph them as long as there is food involved. They have a very one track mind.
The deer on Miyajima island are just as bad if not worse. The island that is famous of its floating torri gate has the same problem as Nara. Because there is the famous Itsukushima Shine on the island, thousands of people made pilgrimages there and fed the deer thinking they were sacred. Now that the place is a tourist attraction, the deer have multiplied out of control.
The deer are serious pests, so much so that deer food has been banned on the island. This does not stop the deer though. Miyajima deer don’t bow for crackers, they lunge for your wallet. They will eat anything that fits in their mouth. They will nibble on your bag, chomp on your map or sometimes even try to eat real food if you have any on you.
You can pet these deer and they are rarely violent, but you don’t want to get between them and food.
Kashima Shrine (Deer Island)
Here the deer have taken over a whole island. Japan likes to give islands up to animals once the human population dwindles. There is a rabbit island in Hiroshima and several cat islands all over Japan. Kashima Shrine, also known as deer island is in Ibaraki prefecture.
The deer on Kashima island are considered especially sacred. Kashima Shrine was erected in honour of a sacred deer messenger sent by Shinto God Amitarasu. There are about twenty deer who live in the shrine grounds and you can buy carrots to feed them.
This sounds like another food scam to me but the deer here are a lot calmer, perhaps because of less competition.
Kinkasan is one of the holiest places in all of northern Japan. It is an island with three sacred mountains, each dedicated to a different religion. The Shinto mountain has attracted a lot of deer. They are anywhere where priests might give them a free meal.
The deer on this island are a bit pushy but not as bad a the Miyajima deer. You can pet and feed them but don’t expect a bow. These deer have to deal with colder temperatures so may have darker coats and less spots.
To sum up the deer of Japan are friendly to anyone who has food but be careful when you run out. The Miyajima deer are not to be trusted and the deer at Nara are far too eager. Kinkasan deer are OK but a bit pushy. The friendliest deer in Japan are probably on Deer Island at Kashima shrine, but don’t take my word for it explore these places for yourself and decide if you think these deer are friend or foe.