How the deer of Nara betrayed me

Everybody that’s studied abroad in Japan always returns home with lots of amazing stories to tell their friends and family. Patrick Mercer, our JCMU Media Specialist and a 2014/15 JCMU alum, has his own stories that he’d like to share with you!

Nara is a must-visit while you’re in Japan: ancient temples, shrines, large shopping district, and a park with deer you can directly interact with. However, as Patrick recalls, beware feeding the animals…


I’m ashamed to say that I knew very little of Nara’s history before setting out for the ancient capital. Nope, my reason for visiting was far less noble: I wanted to chill out with deer.

Growing up in Michigan my whole life, I always thought of deer as anxious creatures that would run away at the first sign of a human. So when I heard of Nara’s famous Nara Park (sometimes called “Nara Deer Park”), I was intrigued. According to my friends, deer are considered to be holy creatures in the city and are heavily protected by local laws. This meant that the deer became so comfortable with the human population there that you could walk right up and pet them. Cute, pettable deer? Sign me up!

Oh, if only I knew how terrifying the deer were.

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Hanging out with the deer was a lot of fun – at first, at least…

Upon arrival to the park, I was absolutely delighted. There really were deer everywhere! And they really were so used to humans that you could walk right up to them! My friend and I, both lovers of cute things, couldn’t contain our excitement as we walked through the area.

Halfway through, we came across a vendor selling “deer crackers,” disc-shaped food that we could feed the park’s animal natives. In my mind, I had this idealized image of feeding the deer while sitting on a park bench, similar to how movie characters would sometimes feed birds. I thought it would be a peaceful, serene activity to partake in. Needless to say, I bought a large pack of the crackers.

Immediately, I knew this was a mistake.

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The Nara deer are always on the lookout for snack handouts

Like something straight out of a horror movie, the deer’s personalities shifted completely, becoming something like a hivemind cult group. Every single deer in the immediate area instantly gathered around me. It didn’t matter if they were previously sleeping, facing away from me, with other deer – nope, the second my money was handed over, the deer were there, ready to strike. And they weren’t going to wait another second for their food.

The deer bit me, jumped around, and pilfered my backpack in search of snacks. There was no space to move, as there seemed to be no end to them no matter where I turned. I tried to shoo them away by throwing the crackers, but that only served to bring even more of the evil creatures over to me. I ran away, but the deer just ran with me, nibbling at my side all the way. Even after depleting my cracker supply, they continued to follow me for the remainder of my time in the park. What was once excitement morphed into fear, and I couldn’t escape the area soon enough.

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Tōdai-ji’s absolutely stunning!

Perhaps as a repression technique, I became a lot more interested in visiting other parts of Nara! Tōdai-ji, one of the largest wooden structures in the world containing the country’s largest daibutsu (statue of Buddha), was breathtaking. Kōfuku-ji and its 5-story pagoda were awe-inspiring. My friend and I even got to participate in a delicious nagashi sōmen run taking place in the city’s shopping district. Still though, even as we were on the train back to Shiga, most of my thoughts were still consumed by the creatures that (literally) bit the hand that fed them.

I’ve since returned to Nara twice on separate trips with my JCMU classmates. Despite my previous encounter with them, I still enjoy visiting Nara Park. Now though, I know the dangers of deer crackers.

The city’s beauty is truly stunning, and I highly recommend visiting if you’re ever in Japan. Just be weary of feeding the deer!

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