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Saturday, Oct. 21, 2006


Oh deer, what can the matter be?

Ah, Miyajima! One of the most photographed spots in Japan. That fantastic torii gate in the sea, the vermilion Utsukushima Shrine, magnificent Mount Misen, those damn deer!

News photo
A deer in its natural habitat in Miyajima. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

Anyone who has visited Miyajima probably remembers the deer (shika) as much as Utsukushima Shrine or the O-torii gate. The deer are probably the next most photographed image in Japan. With over 2,000 "wild but tame" deer roaming around the island, Miya jima could very well qualify as the world's largest petting zoo.

Miyajima deer are so famous that all the gift shops sell deer souvenirs. The Bambi-like deer are so cute though, you can't help falling in love with them. And that's when they steal you blind. They go straight for your pockets.

Pity the tourist who comes out of the ferry port and takes out his Miyajima tourist map to orient himself. Carefully observing nearby is a gang of deer. One of them volunteers to approach the tourist -- Watch out, there he goes!

This deer looks determined, striding quietly yet confidently over to the tourist, closer and closer, until -- whoosh! He tears the map out of the tourist's hands.

The startled tourist watches in dismay as the deer quietly munches up and swallows the map, keeping constant eye contact the whole time. Charming, eh? Next, the deer, noticing the tourist has not yet fled, goes for his pockets.

The Miyajima Tourist Association warns tourists about the deer on their Web site: "Deer may eat paper and cloth. Please pay attention to approaching deer." Following, in capital letters is: "JR PASSES WILL NOT BE REPLACED." It turns out that Japan Rail passes are one of the staple foods for deer. It makes you wonder if the deer aren't perhaps staff of Japan Railways. After all, how would we know?

Since the deer eat cloth too, they probably would have eaten their own uniforms. And speaking of eating cloth, the Web site doesn't say anything about replacing your new Armani suit should the deer decide to eat that off your body.

I suppose it is no surprise then that in Miyajima, the garbage is not separated according to matter such as paper or plastic. Instead, it all goes into the same receptacle -- the deer.

This includes everything. Burnables and nonburnables, digestibles and nondigestibles. Many tourists hand feed the deer plastic bags, just to watch them gobble it down. The poor deer. Their diet is gomi shika nai.

But hey, what can you do these deer are shinroku, or messengers of the Gods. And their message is, apparently, rubbish. And JR tickets.

The Miyajima Tourist Association Web site attempts to educate the public about the deer: "A deer's stomach is divided into four rooms like cattle."

Wow, they must have really been hungry to down an entire 4-room apartment! Or perhaps they meant that the deer have the ability to separate garbage once it is eaten, and store it in four compartments of the stomach: burnable, nonburnable, digestible and nondigestible.

Since the Web site mentions that tree leaves are hard for deer to digest, I wonder how they manage to digest the steady stream of hand-fed plastic by Japanese tourists: plastic bags, pet bottle labels, candy wrappers, etc.

I was shocked by the behavior of the tourists. What are we teaching our deer these days, that they can feed on plastic bags and fast food wrappers and still lead a healthy life? Where are the authorities anyway?

There were plenty of signs around warning tourists to stay away from deer with antlers as they can be dangerous (delivering angry messages from the gods?), but there was no sign warning the deer to stay away from the tourists. The more time I spent on Miyajima, the more I was tempted to put up signs warning the deer about the humans. In front of the torii gate was a photographer making money by taking photos of tourists posing in front of the gate with a deer he had trained to pose with them.

Later, I met a foreign tourist who said he saw a deer with a tranquilizer dart hanging out of its side. This was just hours after I myself had come upon a deer trapped in the forest, trapped in a mountain stream. He was lying in cold running water, shaking all over, and unable to get out. His antlers were bleeding as if they had been freshly cut off.

I went into the stream with my friend and dragged the deer on to the bank of the stream. He lay there a few minutes until finally his legs worked well enough again to stand up. He calmly walked away. I do believe the Miyajima deer are messengers from the gods. It is us humans who are too ignorant to hear their message.

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