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Events

What is The Nara Deer Antler-Cutting Ceremony?

Beneath the sprawling canopies of ancient trees in Nara, Japan, an ancient ceremony unfolds with the arrival of autumn.

By 4 min read 2

Like sharp branches, antlers sprout from the heads of Nara’s male deer. Ten men known as the seko, grasping red flags and bamboo crosses, seize these magnificent creatures to trim the bucks’ antlers for the safety of the deer population and the humans they coexist with.

For nearly three and a half centuries, the Shika no Tsunokiri (Deer Antler Cutting Ceremony) has ushered in the fall season of Nara. Since the early 1920s, the ceremony has occurred at Rokuen, near Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara Park, or “Deer Park.” The Rokuen was created to protect newborn fawns and their mothers, and a special stadium was built for the antler-cutting ceremony.

Today, this event attracts visitors worldwide and can only be experienced once a year, from Oct. 7 to 9, during the deer mating season. As part of the audience, you will stand on raised, tiered rows overlooking this age-old, historical ceremony.

The Ceremony

Photo:
Nara’s deer have their antlers trimmed for safety.

The Shika no Tsunokiri begins with a solemn prayer for safety, conducted by a Shinto priest, known as the shinkan, from the Kasuga Taisha Shrine. After the ceremony grounds have been purified, male deer are released into the stadium, galloping freely across the field. The seko, armed with special tools, enter the space.

As the bucks scatter, the seko prepare their bamboo crosses to securely attach to the deer’s antlers without causing harm. When the rope snags an antler, flag-wielding seko corrals the buck while their comrades work to grasp it. Once captured, the deer is gently lifted and placed on a goza, a traditional woven mat. The shinkan then pours fresh water from a ceramic jug to quench the deer’s thirst and soothe it.

With a curtain called kohakumaku separating the other deer, the Shika no Tsunokiri proceeds. The antlers, composed of fully matured bone that has naturally shed its sensitive outer layer, are carefully trimmed with a saw. The crowd cheers as the antlers are presented, and the deer is released, leaping joyously. The rhythmic pulse of a taiko drum fills the air with the excitement of the fall season.

History and Legend

Photo:
The sacred deer of Nara in autumn.

According to legend, a Shinto deity named Takemikazuchinomikoto descended upon Mount Mikasa in ancient Nara atop a white deer. The offspring of this deer have been thought to be divine messengers, earning the name shinroku (divine deer). To honor their legacy, the antlers cut during Shika no Tsunokiri are offered to the gods of Kasuga Shrine. However, since the shedding of antlers is a natural process, the ceremony may appear unnecessary and raise concerns about handling these shinroku.

The Shika no Tsunokiri began during the Edo period to preserve harmony among the people of Nara and the 1300 deer that share the land. During autumn, male deer roam the streets with excitement and aggression as they compete for territory and a potential mate. For this reason, their large antlers may damage homes, sacred shrines and historical artifacts. They may also harm people and one another.

Thus, it was deemed best to remove antlers during mating season. The antlers are offered to the gods, and the bucks are returned to Nara Park, where they will remain protected as national treasures and regrow their antlers in spring.

Things To Do and See

Photo:
Kasuga Taisha Shrine

Guests can leave the stadium and explore the park as the ceremony ends. Just outside, you’ll find a market selling souvenirs to help you cherish the memories of your visit, including t-shirts, hats, bags and photographs of deer. You might also spot intriguing artifacts on display, including vintage shinkan uniforms bearing the emblem of Kasuga Taisha Shrine.

Nearby, there’s a gut-wrenching display—a ball composed of plastic and paper waste extracted from a deer’s stomach. In 2019, 4.3 kilograms of trash were found inside a deer that passed away in Nara Park. It’s a reminder of how dangerous thoughtless littering can be and how important it is to be mindful when visiting the homes of these gentle animals.

Wandering in Nara Park as the sun sets, you might spot a male deer, antlerless and weary from the remnants of summer heat. It may be cooling off in a puddle of water with flies swarming around its body, which are attracted by the strong scent bucks emit during mating season. You will likely find deer gathering around vendors offering shika sembei, a special deer cracker made from rice bran and wheat. As you hold a packet of sembei and are chased around by playful, hungry bucks, you might feel thankful that they no longer bear their majestic, pointy antlers.

The 2023 Nara Deer Antler-Cutting Ceremony

Photo:
Seko surrounding a young, aggressive buck.

Below is information about the 2023 Anler Cutting Ceremony schedule:

  • Oct. 7th (Saturday) to Oct. 9th (Monday)
  • Tickets are required for entry.
  • Tickets for adults are ¥1,000 and ¥500 for children.
  • Doors open at 11:15 a.m., and the last entry is 2:30 p.m.
  • Each session lasts about 30 minutes. Attendance is limited per session.

Have you ever been to the Atler Cutting Ceremony in Nara? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!

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  • per mikael ohlsson says:

    10/5/2023. Hello my name is pm. ohlsson. I just read about the. Atler cuting cermony in Nora I have newer seen it in the practice but i find it intressting. but Iam allso intressted to learn more about japanese culture. I am buddhist but i need to learn more about Buddhist culture. I hoppe one of the days i can vissit japan. okey take care yourssinecerely. pm. ohlsson

  • Some Random Guy says:

    This is terrible and makes animal mutilation something worth of ceremonies and grotesque ticket sales show. The article is written in such a way that those deers are so happy to have their antlers cut that is a reason for celebration and festivities. The hipocrisy is maximum by showing a terrified male dear cornered by several criminals who wants to mutilate him for crowd entertainment.

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