The island of Miyajima is home to more than a thousand Sika deer that freely roam the streets. In the Shinto religion, deer are considered to be messengers of gods and, in ancient times, locals would put food out for them in the temples. Until 1637, killing one of these deer was punishable by death.
Today they are still protected by Japanese law and are bold, curious creatures that will root through tourists’ backpacks looking for food. The antlers of mature bucks are trimmed before the Autumn mating season as part of an annual Shinto ceremony, which dates back to the 1600s. Even then locals saw the danger posed by aggressive, mating deer with long, sharp antlers roaming the streets.
Over the years the deer have moved into more residential areas and parts of the island frequented by tourists This, along with an overpopulation of deer, has resulted in injury to tourists, to the natural environment and to the deer. The deer eat rubbish, often ingesting plastic trays and containers that smell of food, as well as foods that could do them harm. Hatsukaichi City is now trying to maintain a distance between humans and the deer, in order to encourage the deer back to their natural habitat.
Deer are herbivores and their stomachs are not designed to ingest human food, such as bread or leftovers. Naturally they would eat grass, bark, twigs, berries and nuts, adapting their diets over the year to meet their changing nutritional requirements and what is easily accessible.
Visitors are requested not to tease, touch or feed the deer and to ensure that they do not drop any litter on the island.