Nara, Japan

The extinction of wolves led to the Japanese finding themselves overrun with spotted and horned creatures in Nara.

Although Tokyo is often overshadowed by Kyoto, the city of Nara can also count itself as a former capital of Japan. Today, Nara no longer holds the political authority it once did, but the city is still the site of several important temples, as well as the bronze Buddha in Tōdai-ji temple, which I didn’t visit.

Hilltop view across Nara.

The first thing most people think of when they hear the word Nara is deer, since over 1000 of the animals live in Nara Park. Yes, it’s true, the deer in Nara roam the streets freely. Although technically wild animals, the deer in Nara are used to humans being around and are pretty un-phased by their presence. Revered as messengers of the gods, the deer aren’t caged or tethered in any way. Instead they are left to wander freely around the sprawling Nara Park. As the park is one of the largest tourist attractions in the city, tourists often stop to pose for pictures with the animals, as well as feeding them special deer biscuits sold by local vendors. This is wild nature at its best.

Does and fawns on the streets.
Some brave deer insist on getting biscuits straight from the shop.

Such close coexistence between humans and animals has seen the implementation of some safeguards, including the annual Nara Deer Antler-Cutting Ceremony. This antler pruning party is being held for two reasons: for entertainment and protection. It’s primarily done to prevent some unlucky tourists from getting injured by aggressive bucks, as they do every year, when trying to feed them cookies.

A deer listens in on a conversation.

Deer antlers are composed of the same material as human fingernails. They fall out at the end of every winter, with new antlers growing back in the spring. Cutting the deer’s fully grown antlers is like clipping their nails — harmless. As a result, finding a deer here with antlers is near impossible.

Nara landscape.

Deer were once thought of as sacred animals, instead they are now classed as a national treasure. Contrary to this, in the north of Japan they are also culled. So why would such a holy animal be killed? Japan’s deer population has exploded, leading farmers to incur large crop losses each year, as the number of deer continues to grow. In order to reduce the numbers of the sacred animals, Japan’s government has relaxed the country’s hunting laws.

Deer with cut antlers.

Several cultural factors contribute to Japan’s deer population issue. Strict gun control regulations mean hunting is restricted to a very small group of people. That particular group, like the rest of Japanese society, is ageing rapidly. Despite attempts to popularise the “sport”, young people haven’t shown much interest, preferring instead to kill virtually, via video games. In most prefectures, the hunting season now runs all year-round and hunters can bag up to 20 deer a day. Which has actually reduced the interest in hunting.

Deer meat for human consumption is another solution being tested out, with many Japanese chefs now promoting venison. As a low calorie, protein and iron rich food-source, some health councils support serving venison in school lunches. Venison has also started to appear in some bento boxes in Tokyo. Despite this marketing push, Japanese consumers have not been particularly enthusiastic about eating deer meat. Surprising, given the Japanese people’s usual appetite for consuming the flesh of all sorts of exotic wild things.

Yellow hill in Nara.

Another potential solution to the problem is the reintroduction of wolves, extinct in Japan for over a century. Siberians migrated via land bridges to the north of Japan more than 30,000 years ago and the Ainu of Hokkaido hunted wolves with poison-tipped arrows and spears. During the Meiji Restoration the wolf was thought to be a threat to livestock farming, which led to most wolves being exterminated by Japanese the farmers. They eventually became extinct in the late 1800s. There is evidence that wolves were actually worshipped at some point. Folk tales make mention of wolves warning villagers of impending natural disasters via precautionary howls.

Pathway on the hill.
The decline and eventual extinction of the wolf species continues to impact Japan’s landscape, as the authorities attempt to maintain the equilibrium of the forest animals, which is becoming more unbalanced every year.