The afternoon is bright and clear. In the Japanese city of Hiroshima, you board a boat with many other people and speed across the water at an exhilarating rate, white diamond beads of water streaming from each side of the vessel. After about 15 minutes, you arrive at the sacred island of Miyajima, one of the most beautiful and enchanting places on earth. For thousands of years, pilgrims have traveled here to see the beautiful virgin forests and worship in the sacred temples and shrines. Miyajima's floating torii (gate) of Itsukushima shrine is one of the most famous sites in all Japan. (It doesn't really float but is surrounded by water in the bay during high tide.)
You have come here to experience the ancient power of this island, and, as you step off the boat onto the dock, you are not disappointed. The peace of such a place has endured for centuries and the presence of tourists doesn't detract from it one bit. There are some restaurants and shops, of course, but all tastefully incorporated and an integral part of the livelihood of the island's inhabitants.
What you did not expect was that the majority of the island's inhabitants are deer.
There are two times as many deer as there are humans living on Miyajima. They are considered to be shinroku, "Messengers of God". Due to their sacred status, they are given free rein of the island and have, essentially, taken over.
They are not very nice.
One minute you stand there, watching a deer approach you. It looks at you with its soft brown eyes. You think, "Oh! A deer!" and marvel at how it is so tame that it walks right up to you... and eats your guidebook.
When I was there, it took me ten minutes to extricate the sleeve of my coat from the clamp-like mouth of an adorable fawn whom I thought it would be fun to pat. (I had to retire the coat shortly thereafter, because the "partially chewed" look isn't currently in style.)
Other people had their train passes stolen from their pockets, had their lunch snatched from their hands (even while they were running away), and nearly suffered a heart attack when it seemed to them like a whole herd of deer was ganging up on them for reasons that could only be uncompromisingly evil.
Truth be told, the divine animals headbutt you just because they feel like it and stare at you in an unnerving fashion such that you wonder if they are contemplating an unfettered charge.
One tourist was overheard describing the holy emissaries as "vicious little creatures that attacked me twice."
Of course, it is forbidden to harm these blessed creatures in any way. It's not even really appropriate to yell at them. Glaring, waving your arms, asking nicely, and stomping your feet are really the only options. They haven't managed to kill anyone yet or commit any other such unforgivable crime, so they've been allowed to do pretty much whatever they want... for hundreds of generations.
One wonders what sort of message these Messengers are striving to convey.
Even if you don't find the shinroku to be particularly amusing (especially after your first five alarmingly personal experiences with them), you can at least give them credit for keeping you on your toes as you enjoy the otherwise extraordinarily serene landscape of the island.
These daring deer also deserve credit for inspiring innumerable anecdotes for later use at cocktail parties. They are also very photogenic. Just try not to get too close.