Visiting Japan’s Cat Islands
The nation of Japan is surrounded by over 6,000 islands with a little more than 430 of these inhabited by humans.
A few of those 430 inhabited islands boast a population consisting of more cats than people. Just a short ferry ride will drop you at many of these islands and if you want to stand out, you better bring some kitty treats because the tourists are flocking there.
Hail to the Cat
Cats are revered in Japan, even more so than they think they are everywhere else. It is believed in Japan that wealth and good fortune will come your way just by feeding a cat. I’m not sure what comes your way for belly rubs, but try at your own risk. Artwork depicting cats, not just in the picture but as the main subject, can be found in work from the Edo period (1603-1868) and the Meiji period (1868-1912). Don’t forget and I’m sure you won’t: this is also the land that has recently given us the Hello Kitty character we see on lunch boxes and pretty much everything else in stores today.
There’s More Than One
Differing accounts list 10 or 12 islands that claim to be “Cat Islands” around Japan. The two most mentioned and visited are Aoshima and Tasirojima. Since most cats don’t seem too inclined to swim, there is a good chance they will still be there when you visit. Most of these Cat Islands are also considered “Terminal” islands. This simply means that more than half of the population is over 65 and in decline. As the human populations dwindled, the cats did what cats do and reproduced prodigiously.
Aoshima has a cat population of 160 with humans only numbering around 16 people. That’s a 10-to-1 difference for those of you who didn’t get the math. This is a big tourist stop by ferry and is considered paradise by some. Of course, the mice and birds would disagree as there are none to be found. The cats were brought here during the sardine fishery days to combat a mice problem. As the fisheries closed, the humans departed and the cats thrived.
There is a cat shrine on Tashirojima called Neko Jinja dedicated to the Cat God. I’m not sure if you say “Hello Kitty’ when you pray at the shrine, but it is said to bring good fishing and safe passage to the fisherman of the island. Besides the fishing, the people on this island were said to have also raised silk worms and the cats were first brought here to combat mice. They obviously did their job as there is not a mouse to be found. Unfortunately the fisheries and silk worms have gone away as well but now the tourists help the island survive.
If You Visit
Along with treats, you might want to bring an empty bag and some string. Okay, just joking but that always works with our cat. There are ferries to take you to both these islands and you will be among fellow cat fanciers. There’s not much else to do there so cat lovers are pretty much the only ones making the trip. Bring a can of tuna and you will be a big shot. Bring the universal cat toy: a laser pointer, and let the fun begin.