Deer of Nara Explained

Deer of Nara Explained

There is a rather popular opinion that deer were put to roam streets of Nara as a pure tourist attraction.

Well, there is a grain of truth in it. The city does cash out on deer as they drive a constant flow of tourists, but deer have been there way before the first foreign tourist ever set his foot on Japanese land. And their story is much more interesting than all cat cities, bunny islands and fox villages combined.

So, why deer? Why in Nara? Where did they come from in such numbers? And what’s so special about them, anyway? Let’s find out!

Contents:

  • Deer in the myth of Amaterasu Sun Goddess
  • The poetic animal
  • Kasuga Shrine, Deer mandala and the divine ancestors of Japanese aristocrats
  • Deer over people or bloodthirsty Buddhist monks
  • The never-ending deer problems
  • The evil governor and the saviour
  • To eat or not to eat – Nara deer in the 20th century
  • BONUS: The poop talk

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Now let’s look at books, poems and mandalas I’ve mentioned in the episode.

Art

First, here is the Kasuga Deer Mandala (fragment).

Look, there is a tiny deer figure on the top of the mountain. That’s what I was talking about.

But you’re not alone if you think it’s almost impossible to see the details. So here is 14th century Kasuga Deer Mandala from Nara National Museum for you.

Shinto deities enshrined in Kasuga Taisha are shown here as Buddhas, but you can see a white deer and a sacred Sakaki tree on its back.

Another interesting picture I’d like to show you is Takemikazuchi-no-Mikoto on deer’s back. Unlike buddhas and bodhisattvas Shinto deities are rarely depicted in their human form. So have a look at this 14th century scroll from Nara National Museum (full size).

And while we are enjoying the art, here is a proof of tourists feeding deer in Nara park in 1791. Look at the bottom of the right page. Here a stag is munching on some round snack, while on the left page a kid tries to get rid of another stag demanding a treat.
You can scroll through the full book “Famous Places of Yamato” on the website of Waseda University Library.

Now, my favourite, a song. Here you can listen to Nara no Kasugano and laugh at deer dance. It’s a bit weird, but it’s also just one minute, so give it a try.

In Episode 21 of Lucky Star girls go on a school trip to Kyoto and Nara, where they encounter deer. In this short clip you can see for yourself exactly how 200+ people get injured every year by such cute and gentle animals.

Books

An ancient collection of myths, legends and semi-historical accounts of early Japanese history. It’s not the most exiting read I’ve ever had. But reading Kojiki at least once will help you to understand a basis of Japanese culture, so trust me, it’ll turn very useful in a long run.

An anthology of Japanese poetry compiled in the second half of the 8th century. Personally, poetry is not my thing. Especially Japanese poetry as it is more a game of finding symbols and references than anything else. But everyone is different, and maybe Man’yoshu is a book for you.

A really nice article by Kyoto University Professor where he shows you some diary notes written by Heian nobility on their trips to Nara and encounters with deer.

Sorry, the rest is in Japanese. But let me know if you’d like to see Japanese sources included in the next episode notes.

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Talk to you soon. Bye!

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