Like many tourists in Japan, I first encountered deer (shika) at Nara, the town outside of Kyoto that was the capital of Japan in ancient times. Herds of deer roam freely in the park around Todai-ji Temple, where the world’s largest wooden building houses an immense statue of Buddha, and Kasuga Shrine. Actually, the deer roam anywhere they want in Nara; sometimes they stage impromptu sit-ins at the train station, which is blocks away from the park where they’re supposed to pose for photos with tourists.
The deer at Nara are not as cute as this hashioki. They’re not potty trained, of course, and their poop makes walking on the stone paths challenging, especially in the rain. The deer are also quite aggressive about butting their heads into unsuspecting tourists to convince them to buy and offer them the rice crackers that appear to be their primary source of food. But while it may not be entirely pleasant, communing with the deer is definitely part of the Nara experience.
Smaller herds of deer also populate other Shinto shrines, including Miyajima, where a huge red Tori gate appears to float in Hiroshima Bay. According to an ancient Shinto belief, deer are considered to be the sacred messengers of the gods, and are therefore entitled to free room and board.
Deer are not native to Japan, and are believed to have walked to Japan from the Asia continent at a time when the sea level was low. This suggests that deer are courageous in addition to being assertive, which may explain why Japan’s naval forces work deerskin uniforms and mounted antlers on their helmets during the eighth century (1). During the fifteenth century and later Japanese samurai sometimes decorated their helmets with deer antlers, too. This Kutani hashioki showing a galloping stag looks like the kind of deer that could have inspired warriors.
(1)Baird, Merrily. Symbols of Japan: Thematic Motifs in Art and Design. New Yorkk: Rizzoli International Publications, 2001, pp. 129-131.