Oh, Deer! The Endearing Animal Of Japan

In recent years, Japan has become popular for more than its rich history, culture, arts, and traditions. Many foreign travelers choose to visit the country for their dose of modern technology, quirky trends, and interesting attractions. Of course, not all of the fascinating activities Japan has to offer are for everybody. As the saying goes, “to each his own”. However, there is one thing, or rather animal, likely to tickle anyone’s fancy – the Japanese deer.

Are There Deer In Japan? What Are They Called?

Different forms of media have been surfacing on various sites that show deer in Japan being fed or simply admired by locals and tourists. Referring to them as Japanese deer is not wrong as the term is included in the many other names the species goes by, along with Cervus Nippon, spotted deer, and sika deer.

The sika deer is a native deer type to the majority of East Asia, including China and Korea. Each Asian population has unintentionally led to several genetic pollutions leading to more than ten different subspecies such as the brocket deer, Jolo deer, and Vietnamese sika deer.

Other parts of the world also have sika deer but there is a particular overabundance in Japan, including the gazelle-like subspecies, kerama deer, and the barking deer known as muntjac. As such, the etymology of its name comes from the Japanese word shika, which means deer. Interestingly though, the deer is referred to as nihonjika, which literally means Japan deer by the local community.

Unlike other deer species, the Japanese deer keeps its spots even after reaching full maturity. Tourists may notice that not all deer in Japan look the same. This is normal as the climate and environment of the country vary from region to region. There may be a few differences in terms of size and spot patterns but they are all classified to be sika deer.

Are They Free To Walk Around Japan’s Streets? What Is A Bowing Deer?

Japanese deer are known to be active during the day but have a tendency to become nocturnal in areas where there is a large amount of human disturbance. However, in Japan, they have grown quite accustomed to human interaction and normally go about their day.

For tourists going to Japan’s busy cities such as Tokyo or Osaka, coming across a deer on the street may be a bit unlikely. Although Japan does not go above and beyond to keep deer away from city streets, some areas are really just more abundant in them than the others.

The Nara Park, for example, has more than 1,200 sika deer freely walking around. Here, visitors are free to mingle with them. A lot of tourists take a trip to the park to see in person the quirky thing these deer do for food – bowing. There are shika senbei, or deer cookies, sold at the park which visitors can buy and feed to the deer. Over the years, the deer have become quite familiar to this snack and have developed the habit of bowing before being fed. As such, the deer in Nara Park are better known as bowing deer.

The act of bowing may be a delightful thing to witness but actually signals that the deer is planning to do a headbutt. Most of the time, these bowing deer are not aggressive when given food. However, tourists are advised not to bow to the deer as they may charge with a headbutt, either for playing purposes or for asserting their dominance.

The Role Of Deer In Shinto

There is actually a deeper reason as to why Japan does not have strict rules when it comes to their deer roaming around wherever they wish other than to attract foreign travelers. In Shinto, Japan’s native religion, deer are considered as messengers of the gods. As such, several areas in the country have designated them as sacred animals or even national treasures.

Where Can Tourists Go To Admire Deer?

There are five places in Japan that tourists can visit to admire Japanese deer up close. Other than being abundant in the sacred animal, these places also provide visitors with various historical, cultural, and religious attractions.

Kashima Shrine

Kashima Shrine is located in the Ibaraki Prefecture and is situated at the topmost part of the Kashima plateau. The shrine is dedicated to the kami (god), Takemikazuchi no Okami, a tutelary deity of martial arts. As such, the religious structure also serves as the home of Kashima Shinto-ryu, a traditional Japanese martial arts school that dates back to the Muromachi Period.

Legend says that even before heaven and earth were created, the god, Kashima, performed religious festivals on the shrine’s current site throughout Emperor Sujin, Emperor Yamato Takeru, and Emperor Tenji’s reigns. Out of respect to Kashima, several constructions ensued within the vicinity. According to historical records, Kashima Shrine was established during the first year of Emperor Jimmu’s reign in 600 BC.

Given the shrine’s close proximity to the Ezo people’s lands, it has become an important base in the war between the native people and the imperial court. The Kashima Shrine, along with the Katori Shrine, experienced large groups of military personnel and officials over the years. As such, the shrine pays tribute to the war annually through the Shihohai, a ceremony performed by its priest during the first day of the year. Around this time, more than 600,000 locals from all parts of Japan visit the shrine for welcoming in the new year from the 1st to the 3rd day of January.

Visitors of the shrine have much to explore regarding the area’s long history and rich culture. Amidst historical documents, old landscapes, and several national treasures, tourists should also take time to appreciate the sika deer roaming around the area. As with other shrines, the deer here are treated as sacred animals believed to be messengers from the Shinto gods. There are around twenty sika deer living within the Kashima Shrine’s vicinity.

Nara Park

Nara Park is situated at the base of Mount Wakakusa in Nara, Japan. It was established during the 1300s, making it one of Japan’s oldest public parks. The park is inhabited by more than 1,200 Japanese deer. As such, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) has designated Nara Park to be among Japan’s “Places of Scenic Beauty”. Furthermore, the MEXT has also classified the deer roaming around this area to be national treasures.

Before World War II, the deer in this area, along with other regions, were considered sacred animals due to the local folklore telling the tale of Takemikazuchi no Mikoto riding a white deer. Japanese deer were regarded with such great importance that killing one of them was considered a crime punishable by death. Soon after the war concluded, the deer were stripped of their divine title and were designated as national treasures instead. 

The official size of Nara Park is roughly 502 hectares. Including the Kasuga Shrine, Todai Temple, and Kofuku Temple, the complex comes to a total of 660 hectares. Rickshaw services, called jinrikisha, are available near the entrance for those who want an easier way to explore the large vicinity. The park also features a museum, several gardens, a traditional teahouse, and wooden structures.

Nara Park aims to give the deer a pleasant environment amidst the presence of people. As such, there are several stalls in the park that sell special deer crackers for visitors who want to feed them. This helps maintain a peaceful atmosphere within the park.

In addition, the park annually cuts off the large antler sections of the male deer to prevent possible problems between the deer or with the humans. This ceremony is done every October and is open to the public.

Mishima Taisha

Mishima Taisha is a shrine located in the Shizuoka Prefecture. The exact date it was established remains unknown as the shrine was transferred from place to place before finally reaching its current site. Over the years, it has gone by several names including Izu Mishima Shrine and Shingu.

The shrine is known for its association with Minamoto no Yoritomo, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate. After being exiled to Izu, he frequently sought for divine assistance in gaining victory in the Genpei War at Mishima Taisha. Out of gratitude and respect, he rebuilt the shrine to be larger in scale upon successfully establishing the Kamakura Shogunate.

Since then, the shrine became a place for clans to request for guidance and help from the gods with regards to being victorious in battle. As such, Mishima Taisha was protected by the Odawara Hojo, Imagawa clan, and Tokugawa clan for several years.

The complex also houses a small museum and hall that hold some of Japan’s national treasures and important cultural properties. These items include a tachi (Japanese sword, a wakizashi (short sword, a sutra, and historical documents that date back to the Heian Period.

Some of Mishima Taisha’s natural attractions include, of course, Japanese deer and a sacred 1,200-year old olive tree. Back in the year 1919, a sika deer was given to the shrine as an offering from the Kasuga Shrine. At present, there are roughly a dozen deer living within the vicinity and protected in an enclosure.


Kinkasan is an island located in northeastern Japan, particularly in the Miyagi Prefecture. It is relatively small, measuring 3.7 sq. km. in area. There are several shrines and temples located within and nearby the island. It has a mountainous terrain, making it a good place for tourists looking to go hiking.

However, several areas of the island are undergoing restoration as part of the Sanriku reconstruction project that was implemented after the island greatly suffered in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. There are currently around 450 Japanese deer that are free to roam around as they please within the island. As with other places, they are regarded as the Shinto gods’ messengers. In addition, the same antler cutting ceremony done in Nara Park is also observed here every October.


Miyajima, also known as Itsukushima, is located northwest of the Hiroshima Bay. The island’s name literally translates to mean Shrine Island, relating to the Itsukushima Shrine, the main shrine of Miyajima. Both the island and the shrine are popular for providing visitors with one of the best views in Japan, featuring a seemingly floating torii gate during high tide.

The island is home to about 500 sika deer that originally lived up in the mountains, away from humans. For roughly 6,000 years, the deer did not step foot on the coast and were considered as wild animals. Upon the increasing popularity of the island as a tourist destination, the deer decided to venture down and start living away from the mountains.

Over the years, the sika deer have become incredibly tame. However, in 2008, the local administration started worrying about their dietary balance and frequent exposure to humans. As such, feeding them is forbidden. Tourists are welcome to admire the deer from a distance or up close if approached by one.

Foreign travelers are advised to make the most of their visit to the island by making a trip to at least one of the many interesting attractions in Miyajima. Although not common, it is possible for tourists to come across several deer at these places as well.

  1. Itsukushima Shrine
    The Itsukushima Shrine is a popular Shinto shrine in Miyajima known for its tori gate and main building that seem to float on water during high tide. The shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and several of its structures and artifacts have been designated as national treasures of Japan.
  2. Mount Misen
    Mount Misen is Miyajima’s highest mountain. Tourists may reach the mountain through a ropeway or through one of three existing hiking trails called Momijidani Course, Omoto Course, and Daisho-in Course. The last trail mentioned is the least steep of all and provides the most stunning sceneries.
  3. Daisho-in Temple
    Daisho-in Temple is situated at the base of Mount Misen. It is a historic complex that houses several Buddhist temples, artifacts, and statues.
  4. Walking Trails
    The walking trails of Miyajima provide a pleasant experience for tourists to stroll through forests and view the island’s town from above. These trails are particularly stunning during the autumn and in early April when the cherry trees are in full bloom.
  5. Miyajima Aquarium
    The Miyajima Aquarium is a public aquarium situated at the end of the town. Given the Hiroshima Prefecture’s abundance in oyster farms, the aquarium has a display dedicated to presenting the different features of such a farm.

The Miyajima Aquarium is a public aquarium situated at the end of the town. Given the Hiroshima Prefecture’s abundance in oyster farms, the aquarium has a display dedicated to presenting the different features of such a farm.

Additional Tips For Tourists Regarding Japan’s Deer

As previously mentioned, Japanese deer have grown quite accustomed to human interaction but are ultimately wild animals. For the safety of the deer and of tourists, these tips should be kept in mind:

  • Snacks made for people may cause deer to suffer nutritional problems. If there are no crackers or food sold in the area meant for the deer, tourists should refrain from feeding them with anything else.
  • Proper disposal of food and trash should be observed. Other than being a basic form of etiquette, this practice also helps prevent the deer from eating or swallowing items possibly harmful to them.
  • The mating season of deer is from September to November. During this period, the male deer tend to be aggressive and should be approached with caution.
  • Fawns are born from May to July. The mothers of these baby deer tend to be a bit aggressive throughout this period and should be approached with caution.