Nara Park: seeing adorable deer in Japan and how to get there with your JR pass

You can’t visit Japan without a visit to Nara Park, one of the must-see areas in Nara City. A large park in central Nara, Nara Park, is where you will find many of Nara’s main attractions, which include Todaiji, Kasuga Taisha, Kofukuji, and the Nara National Museum. You can get to Nara park using Japan rail and with your jr pass. Nara is also home to and probably most famous for its hundreds of freely roaming sacred deer who have learned to bow for treats.  

Established in 1880, Nara Park attracts many tourists who come to see and to feed the deer. The deer are officially designated as a national natural treasure and are considered messengers of the gods in the traditional Shinto religion.

Single, friendly deer in Nara Park, Japan

Deer crackers, which are also known as Shika-senbei, are for sale all over the park, and some very clever deer will go over to visitors and bow as their way of asking to be fed. The animals, who are surprisingly tame, will confidently approach visitors in search of treats. The most conniving deer will not only bow, but some will make their way to the entrance near the temples and distract the tourists. Some wait in front of the temples as they know that there will be an influx of visitors coming to these sections of the parks. They seem to know that posing for photos will ensure they get plenty of attention and plenty of treats.

The deer can get quite enthusiastic and excited when looking for their treats, so you do have to be careful as they forget their manners and will root through bags, purses, and even pushchairs. Generally, you just need to use your common sense when you’re around the deer and don’t have any loose food out or eat your own snacks in front of them. However, when you do get hungry, there are plenty of traditional tea houses as well as kiosks selling snacks and souvenirs.

Back to the deer though, as mentioned, use your common sense and be aware that while you might be giving one animal your treats, others will notice and begin to crowd and it’s not recommended to be stuck with a herd of hungry deer when you’re out of Shika-senbei, so make sure you have plenty.  

Shika-senbei crackers for the deer in Nara Park
Shika-senbei crackers for the deer in Nara Park (Credit: Wally Gobetz)

While they are very friendly animals, the deer can get aggressive, but if you make sure that you don’t tease them with food, then you should be fine. Some have also learned that if you wave ‘bye-bye,’ then it means that you are out of food, and they will wander off, but others haven’t quite learned the sign language yet, so they might follow you if you walk away. 

Aside from seeing the deer, the other sites that you will want to go to Nara Park for are its world-famous temples. There are seven of them to see, and Todaiji Temple, which is home to a 15m high Buddha, is probably the most prestigious and draws a steady stream of visitors. 

On the opposite side of the park from Todaiji is Kasugataisha Shrine, which is Nara’s most celebrated shrine. The buildings are decorated with beautiful brass lanterns, which are lit twice a year, and the shrine is also famous for its wisteria flowers that bloom in May.

In Nara, you’ll also find Isuien, which is a beautiful example of traditional garden design. As well as the garden, you’ll also be able to see the original villas and tea houses which now offer meals. Then, right by Isuien, you’ll see a collection of Buddhist carvings by master carvers such as Unkei of the Kamakura period and the view from Sarusawa Pond across to Kohfukuji Temple’s pagoda is also a must-see.

Next, you should check out the Nara National Museum, to see a fine array of Japanese Buddhist art. The museum was constructed in 1889 is worth a visit just for a look at the outside as the museum’s main building is a classic piece of Meiji period architecture.

Once you’ve done enough sightseeing and just fancy a beautiful walk, then you can enjoy one of the trails through Mt. Kasuga Primeval Forest, a sacred forest which has been awarded World Heritage status. There are trails of various lengths, but the best views are from the peak of Mt. Wakakusa. 

How to get to Nara Park with the JR pass

Nara Park is only a 45-minute train ride south of Kyoto, a five-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station, or about a 20-minute walk from JR Nara Station; it is one place you must visit when in Japan and easy to get to with your JR pass on Japan Railways.