Why do hundreds of deer sit together for an hour at this spot in Nara Park every evening in summer? Our reporter investigates. 

If you’ve ever visited the city of Nara in Kyoto’s neighbouring Nara Prefecture, you’ve probably walked amongst the area’s large population of free-roaming deer, and maybe even run away from some of them as they nosed their way through all your belongings in an attempt to get at those tasty rice crackers.

If you visit during summer though, you’ll find them less rambunctious during the evening hours as the sun descends over the city. That’s when a special phenomenon is known to occur, and it’s called “shikadamari“.

Shikadamari, which loosely translates to “deer gathering spot”, is the unofficial term that’s been coined for the phenomenon, and this is what it looks like on a typical day in summer.

Our Nara-based reporter, Masami, has seen this phenomenon occur every summer, but this year, after it was reported that the number of deer gathering was higher than usual, she decided to head down to the location to see exactly what was happening.

▼ To understand the deer, one must become the deer.

Sure enough, at around 6:30 p.m. in the evening, deer had come from around Nara Park to settle on this particular location, opposite the Nara National Museum, which is located in a corner of the park.

While it’s not unusual to see a few deer relaxing together in Nara Park, it is unusual to see them gathering in one spot in large numbers. What’s most baffling about the occurrence is the fact that they come together to sit at the same spot at the same time each day, and for the same amount of time as well.

The deer gathering begins at around 6:30 p.m. and reaches its peak just before 7:00 p.m. The deer sit quietly together, and then, after 7:00 p.m., they stand up and go back to different areas of the park.

This behavioural pattern occurs day after day in summer, lasting for about an hour every evening. When Masami visited, she did a head count of the deer and counted a whopping 623 animals at the gathering spot.

According to a 2019 survey by the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation, Nara Park is currently home to 1,388 deer. That means roughly half of the park’s deer come together each evening to participate in this mysterious gathering, which is a large chunk of the total population. So what on earth could they be doing?

▼ Are they waiting for a summer music festival to start?

“Hey, Jiro – sit down! I wanna see the band when they come on!” 

“I keep telling you – Summer Sonic is in Osaka, not Nara. We keep coming here every night but it’s never gonna happen.”

One of the most plausible explanations for this phenomenon is that the deer come to this particular spot to cool down. After all, there appears to be a large vent in the vicinity, which may provide the animals with some cool air.

However, wouldn’t it be cooler to be away from the body heat of other animals, rather than in close proximity to them? And with the freedom to roam anywhere they like, why don’t they dip their feet in the water like this deer instead?

It’s hard to know whether this really is the coolest spot in the park after sundown, given that the area in front of the museum is in full sun throughout the day, keeping the earth warm well into the evening.

Perhaps this mix of warm earth and cool air is irresistible to deer? And somehow one in every two deer in the park knows that the prime time for these perfect conditions is only between 6:30 and 7:30 on a summer’s evening?

We enquired with the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation to see if they could give us an explanation for the shikadamari phenomenon, and they had this to say:

“We understand that the deer gather in front of the Nara National Museum, however no survey has been conducted into the number of deer that gather there. We also do not know the reason why they gather there. Sorry we cannot be of any assistance.”

With that reply from the association that looks after the deer in the park, the shikadamari phenomenon remains an official mystery. Why do you think the deer gather at the same spot every day during summer? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!

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