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Kasugayama Primeval Forest: Managing its Many 'Messengers of the Gods'

Kasugayama, the stunning primeval forest and UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nara, is seeking a better balance with its deer that are spoiling the forest cycle.



The Kasugayama Primeval Forest is home to many huge evergreen trees that are hundreds of years old. Tall trees, which are characteristic of virgin forests, block the sunlight, so the forest is dark and cool even during the day. Nara City on April 27. (©Sankei by Ryosuke Kawaguchi)

May 4 is Greenery Day (Midori no Hi) in Japan. To mark this occasion, JAPAN Forward presents the story of Kasugayama, first published in June 2023, as an example of how Japan is preserving its beautiful natural landscapes.

As the morning sun rises over the mountain ridge on Kasugayama, the rain that fell the previous evening turns into vapor rising into the sky. The whole forest looks as if it is taking a deep breath at the start of the day. 

Kasugayama Primeval Forest is located just east of Nara City center, behind Kasuga Taisha (Kasuga Grand Shrine). During the Heian Period (794-1185), it was designated as sacred precincts of the grand shrine where hunting and logging were banned. 

Kasugayama Primeval Forest in Nara (©Sankei by Ryosuke Kawaguchi)

It has been preserved by human hands for more than 1,100 years. 

In the forest dominated by broadleaf evergreens, trees like beech and oak are also preserved. And there are many giant cedar and fir trees that are several hundred years old. It is dark and cool inside the forest even during the daytime. This is because the tall trees, which are characteristic of primeval forests, keep the sunlight out. 

The forest was officially inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. One of the "Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara," it's recognized for its unique pristine vegetation preserved close to urban areas. 

Managing the 'Messengers of the Gods'

However, today, the damage to vegetation caused by the overpopulation of deer is posing a serious problem. The forest cycle is historically sustained as new sprouts grow after big, old trees fall. However, this cycle of renewal is impeded by the increasing number of deer that eat up new sprouts and young trees.

Kasugayama Primeval Forest in Nara (© Sankei by Ryosuke Kawaguchi)

In Nara, deer are special beings and are protected as "messengers of gods." They are designated as natural monuments and are also an important resource for tourism. Fences and nets have been built in the mountains in an effort to reduce the range of movement of the deer. But so far, these have had limited results. 

"The coexistence of humans and nature, and the cultural backgrounds involved are unique to Nara," explains Takuji Sugiyama, 45. He is involved in the conservation of the Kasugayama Primeval Forest

An ancient tree in Kasugayama Primeval Forest. (© Sankei by Ryosuke Kawaguchi)

Sugiyama also views the Kasugayama Primeval Forest as a living case study. And he uses it to teach students about the sustainable development goals (SDGs) when they visit Nara on their school excursions. 

"To solve problems, it is important for people to share a common understanding," he stresses. 

It has been 25 years since the Kasugayama Primeval Forest was inscribed on the World Heritage List. Furthermore, human efforts continue to preserve this rich forest ecosystem so that it can be handed down to the next generation in pristine condition.  


(Read the story in Japanese.)

Author: Ryosuke Kawaguchi, Photojournalist, The Sankei Shimbun