With thousands less tourists in Nara due to the Coronavirus, this year’s winter celebrations seem strangely more magical

Located right by the big tourist hubs of Kyoto and Osaka, Nara is a popular destination for foreign daytrippers, who descend upon Nara Park in their thousands to walk amongst the free-roaming deer. In fact, there are often so many tourists in Nara that the deer have been known to get too full on the senbei rice crackers fed to them by visitors, but that isn’t the case this year, due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

The Governor of Nara recently stated at a press conference that more than 10,000 visitors from China and other nations had cancelled their plans to visit the city, and our Nara-based reporter Masami, who’s been living in the area for ten years, says she’s never seen the park as devoid of tourists as it has been in the last month.

▼ Masami spoke to a senbei rice cracker vendor in the park recently, who said the dip in sales has been dramatic.

While this is a sad story for the city’s economy, and its hungry deer, it’s a good sign for locals who’ve always wanted to visit Nara but have chosen to avoid it due to the overwhelming crowds. And right now is a golden opportunity for locals to visit as there are a number of annual events being held that are usually difficult to get good access to because of the tourists.

One of the most stunning events coming up on the calendar is Shunie, a Buddhist festival held at Todaiji which runs for two weeks from 1-14 March. During this ancient ceremony, which dates back over 1,250 years, giant torches are carried up to the balcony of Todaiji’s Nigatsudo Hall in the evenings and held out over the crowd. The burning embers that fall from the torches are said to bring safety to the people below over the coming year.

Another unique event is “shikayose“, or deercalling, which has been performed in Nara Park on winter mornings since 1892. Organised by The Nara Deer Preservation Foundation, this tradition involves the sounding of a French Horn, which prompts the deer to run out from all around the park and gather by the horn player, who feeds them acorns while playing Beethoven’s 6th Symphony.

The acorns are given to the deer to help nourish them during the colder months when it’s more difficult for them to find food.

Tourists gather around the deer as they gather around the horn blower. It’s an amazing sight to witness, and visitors are encouraged to pet the deer and feed them rice crackers during the event.

The calling of the deer is held on the Tobihino lawn within the grounds of Nara Park’s Kasuga Grand Shrine at 10:00 a.m. every day, except Mondays and during rainy weather, from 9 February to 12 March.

Seeing over a hundred deer galloping out from the trees to the sound of a French horn is a unique experience that everyone should try to witness at least once in their lives. And now that there are less tourists to elbow your way through to see the spectacle for yourself, it’s the perfect time to finally make the trip to Nara. The deer there, with their empty plastic bellies, are waiting to greet you!

Photos © SoraNews24
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