Baffling summer gathering phenomenon sees deer numbers dwindle to their lowest levels. 

For a number of years now, our Nara-based reporter K. Masami has been documenting a mysterious summer phenomenon in Nara Park called “shikadamari“, which literally translates to “deer pool“.

The annual event sees the free-roaming deer in the park gathering together at one particular spot outside the Nara National Museum for around half an hour from 6:30 in the evening. Just after 7:00 p.m., the deer then get up and leave, and nobody, including the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation that looks  after the animals, knows why it happens.

While the mystery remains unsolved, Masami has been attempting to make some sense of it all by observing the phenomenon every year. Interestingly, she’s discovered that the shikadamari phenomenon tends to change slightly every year, and this year the mystery appears to have deepened further, with some new developments.

▼ When she arrived at the deer gathering spot this year, she found only around 20 deer sitting on the grass together.

Back in 2019 — the last “normal” summer before the pandemic drastically reduced visitors to the park — there were around 600 deer at this spot. In subsequent years, numbers have dwindled, with around 26 spotted during her visit in 2022, so this year’s gathering was consistent with this decline.

Masami had previously suspected some correlation between the declining numbers and the lack of tourists due to travel restrictions during the pandemic, but this year, with restrictions completely lifted, there were many more tourists around, and some were even feeding them shika senbei rice crackers.

As Masami hadn’t visited earlier in the season, she wondered if the weather or timing of her visit may have skewed her findings, but a quick check on social media revealed photos throughout the season showed only a small gathering of deer, similar to the one she was witnessing.

This made her wonder if this year’s extreme summer heat may be one of the reason’s behind the scant numbers — a plausible theory, given that the summers appear to be getting hotter in Japan.

▼ As she mulled the mystery over in her mind, she walked over to Todaiji Temple and stopped in her tracks when she found…another shikadamari?

This looked exactly like the shikadamari commonly seen outside the museum, but she’d never seen a herd of deer sitting together on the ground at this spot before. This gathering was located right next to the approach to Todaiji Temple, with the famous Mt Wakakusa mountain in the background, so Masami wondered if these animals had chosen this spot due to its proximity to the thoroughfare of constant tourists, and their tasty crackers.

She observed the deer for a while, wondering if they would all get up and walk off to the trees together at a certain time, but they didn’t move. This made her think that they really were just hanging about to be close to tourists who might feed them, but then again, she couldn’t be sure.

The only thing she was sure about after her visit was the fact that this is a mystery that’s far from being solved. In fact, it seems to become even more baffling every year, as the sacred deer seem to communicate with a secret, silent language that nobody understands. Either way, Masami remains determined to get to the bottom of the mystery one of these days, so she’ll be returning again next summer to observe the animals, who are so beloved they have their very own Nara deer train.

Photos © SoraNews24
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