Many visitors to Japan are seduced by photos of the deer wandering around Nara, or snow monkeys bathing in their very own hot spring. These immediately get added to the “must-do” list without further investigation. Unfortunately many tourists imagine a kind of tame animal experience where they’ll get some good selfies with cute and cuddly animals.
In recent news, it was announced that a record number of people were injured by deer in Nara in 2018. Obviously these people didn’t have the happy encounter with deer that they imagined.
Bad animal behaviour is not only confined to Nara. The deer on Miyajima are renowned for eating maps out of the hands of visitors. Shopkeepers in Shibu Onsen, near the Jigokudani Monkey Park, shoo stray monkeys away because they steal food and other items.
So, if you do want to see deer and monkeys when you are in Japan, what can you do to avoid any unpleasant experiences?
The first thing to remember is that these are wild animals. The places where you see them are not petting zoos. In Nara, there are signs pointing out that the deer are wild and might kick, bite or butt.
The deer in Nara and on Miyajima are believed in the Shinto religion carry the spirits of the gods. This is why they are allowed to roam freely around the towns. They are not farmed or tamed, although they are reasonably accustomed to human interaction.
The monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano and Iwatayama Monkey Park in Kyoto are wild, not caged, and free to come and go as they please. They are encouraged in both places by the management providing a certain amount of food for them.
What this means for visitors is that the animals still have the same instincts that wild animals have. They can be expected to behave like wild animals, particularly if they feel threatened. Many visitors come from cities and have very little experience with animals, possibly not even pet dogs and cats. Here are some specific steps to avoid unpleasant animal experiences.
Feeding can encourage aggressive behaviour in wild animals, as they seek out more food. If you feed one deer or monkey, then others may approach you looking for food. Feeding the monkeys at Jigokudani is expressly prohibited and the City of Hatsukaichi asks visitors not to feed the deer on Miyajima (although both visitors and deer often ignore the City of Hatsukaichi).
At Iwatayama, visitors are permitted to feed the monkeys under supervised conditions, through wire-netting windows which provide protection from the monkeys outside.
In Nara, special crackers are sold for feeding the deer and this is a popular activity. If you do decide to do this, then take care with how you feed the deer. Hold one cracker at a time in your hand and keep the others out of sight. Don’t tease the deer by holding the cracker and pulling it away, as they will just try to get the cracker from you and may possibly become aggressive. If you want photos of feeding the deer, the person with the camera should get ready to take the photo before a cracker is offered to the deer.
If you have snacks or a picnic lunch in your bag, both deer and monkeys may smell this and try to get at the food. Jigokudani Monkey Park forbids bringing in food completely. While you could carry food in your bag at the other places, it’s probably wiser not to do this.
Also, human food can make deer and monkeys sick, and it’s best that they do not eat it. Some tourists in Nara and Miyajima feed the deer ice creams, bread, and other human food. This is just irresponsible and cruel.
Zip up your bag or backpack
Following on from the previous point, keep your bag or backpack closed even if you aren’t carrying food. The monkeys and deer have natural curiosity and little fear of humans. They have been known to get into bags while looking for food. The deer on Miyajima have a reputation for eating anything, including maps, ferry tickets, and plastic wrap.
Baby deer and monkeys look cute but while you’re cooing over them, be aware of where mama and papa are. Their instinct is to be protective of their babies, so don’t get between parent and child, otherwise you might find yourself dealing with a very aggressive deer or monkey.
Petting or holding the animals
They’re wild animals so don’t even think about this. Keep your hands away. While it might work out ok most of the time, it’s easy enough to misjudge animal behaviour and accidentally spook or annoy the animal.
Do enjoy looking at them
The deer and monkeys are used to humans and generally won’t run away when approached. They may even approach you and come up quite close. This can be a really rewarding opportunity to see them interact with each other and go about their daily activities. For many animal-lovers, seeing the deer and monkeys is a highlight of their visit to Japan. Approached with the right attitude and care, it can be for you too.
Would you like to receive my quarterly newsletter with the latest news for visitors, plus useful seasonal information? When you sign up, your email address will only be used to send you the newsletter.
For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, with other ebook stores to come soon.