Pretty much everyone who visits Nara stops by the park to feed crackers to the deer, so are the smaller crowds leaving them hungry?

Tourism numbers are down across Japan since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, but the effect has been especially severe in central Japan. An especially large portion of the international travelers who visit the cities of Kyoto and Nara come from China, and with the coronavirus epidemic originating in Wuhan, Japan’s two former capitals have been seeing smaller crowds for roughly two months now.

It’s not just hotels, restaurants, and temples that are receiving fewer visitors, either. Nara’s biggest tourist draw is Nara Park, the expansive green space in the city center that’s home to herds of dear who freely roam the grounds. Vendors in the park sell “shika senbei,” special rice crackers visitors feed to the deer, but fewer visitors means fewer deer cracker customers. That’s making many people to worry about whether or not the deer are in danger of going hungry, especially since the animals have recently been spotted in parts of the city where they’re not such a common sight.

▼ Shika senbei

To check on how her four-legged friends are faring, last week our Japanese-language reporter and Nara resident K. Masami headed over to the park. Sure enough, there were fewer people than normal for this time of year, with the drop in non-Japanese park-goers especially noticeable. However, that park wasn’t empty. Back in her student days, before the international Japan travel boom really got into full swing, Masami used to work part-time at a nearby temple, and on her recent visit she estimates there were still more people in the park than you’d have found on an off-season midwinter day 10 years ago.

As for the deer, they didn’t look particularly distressed as they relaxed in the sun. Still, after finding a vendor, Masami paid the going-rate 200 yen (US$1.90) for a pack of deer crackers and held a disc out to one of the animals

who promptly trotted over and ate it.

This left Masami a little confused. The deer looked healthy enough to her, but it hadn’t hesitated to partake of the cracker. Did that mean it was hungry, or is it just standard animal nature to eat whenever the opportunity presents itself?

Being a Nara resident doesn’t grant you the power to telepathically communicate with deer, though, and so Masami couldn’t ask them directly.

▼ Or perhaps she is able to mind meld with them, but they’re too polite to think-talk while they’re eating.

Who Masami could ask, though, was the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation, the city’s local animal welfare group. So she called them up, and asked if the park’s deer are in discomfort or danger as a result of getting fewer shika senbei these days.

The foundation’s answer?

“The deer are accustomed to regularly finding their own food. The shika senbei are essentially snacks for them, so we believe they’re still getting plenty of nutrition these days.”

In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense. While Nara Park’s deer are tame, in the sense that they’re relatively calm and used to being around people, they are still wild animals. No one puts them in enclosures at night or sets out bowls of food and water for them, and while they enjoy the crackers as tasty treats, they’re not a critical necessary part of the animals’ diet. If anything, the association told us the deer might actually be enjoying the smaller crowds, making the park a quieter, less potentially stressful environment than it otherwise would be.

So don’t worry about Nara Park’s deer. They’re doing just fine.

Related: Nara Deer Preservation Foundation
Photos ©SoraNews24
[ Read in Japanese ]