The Cat Islands of Japan
Are you a cat person who is planning on going to Japan this year? If so, then I have the perfect place for you to visit. More specifically, I have two perfect places for you to visit.
Ao Island, or Aoshima, is a place that is well known as its nickname “Cat Island” or “Neko no Shima”. It is an island in the Ehime Prefecture that is known for its large number of feline residents. There are so many cats in the island that they drastically outnumber the human population that live there.
How did Aoshima become the home of so many cats? Well The island itself was originally home to just a fishing village. Due to a rodent infestation that always feasted on the catches of the fishermen, the residents who lived there introduced cats into the ecosystem whose population eventually spiraled out of control into what it is now today.
The residents themselves were very old, with only six residents left on the island itself after most of them died of old age. Compared to the residents, there are likely over 200 cats still living on the island, although most of them have been sprayed or neutered as a response to the decline of the human population.
Keep in mind that if you plan on visiting the island, Aoshima was never intended to be a tourist spot. There are no cars, no hotels or restaurants. Not even vending machines. The elderly residents won’t turn you away but you should be respectful of the people who live there. Ensure that you do not litter or dirty the area, and to bring back your garbage with you. You are suggested to bring your own food and drink as well since you likely won’t find any there.
Aoshima is accessible through Nagahama Port, which sends out ferries to Aoshima twice a day at 8 AM and 2:30 PM. The journey takes about 30 to 40 minutes and costs ¥1,360. The return trip is at 8:45 AM and 4:15 PM. As mentioned above, there are no overnight accommodations so you better not miss that boat ride back!
Now if for whatever reason you’re not able to go to Aoshima, you could always instead try to go to Tashirojima instead.
Tashirojima is a small island in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. It’s in the Pacific Ocean off of the Oshika Peninsula to the west of Ajishima. Like Aoshima, Tashirojima is also nicknamed “Cat Island” due to its feline population, and much like Aoshima, that feline population drastically outnumbers the human population.
Also like Aoshima, Tashirojima introduced cats to hunt rodents, though it was not because the rodents were eating fish. During the Edo period, Tashirojima raised silkworms for textiles. Naturally, mice would be tempted to eat these valuable silkworms. It was the natural conclusion to introduce cats who would keep mice away from the silkworms.
The majority of the residents in Tashirojima are over 65, with the village of Tashirojima being marked as a terminal village or “genkai-shūraku”. Being a terminal village means that if over 50% of the population is over 65, the survival of the village is threatened. It would only be a matter of time before Tashirojima’s population dwindles into nothing, and the village becomes a memory of those who once lived there. Although even then, Tashirojima still has about 100 people compared to Aoshima’s 6 residents.
Tashirojima also has a small shrine dedicated to cats known as a “Neko-Jinja”, as the village had a much longer and closer relationship with cats dating back all the way to the Edo Period. Cats in Japanese culture have long since been thought to bring good luck, money and fortune to those who cross their paths. In the Miyagi prefecture itself, there are ten cat shrines as well as 51 stone monuments in the shape of cats, most of which are concentrated in the southern area of the island where the silkworms were raised.
Tashirojima is also known as “Manga Island” due to a manga-themed camping resort that was built on the southern tip of the island. The camping resort consists of cottages that are shaped like cats, featuring artwork from famous manga artists. The resort is open from July to October, and it is always closed on Tuesdays. Besides the manga-themed camping resort however, Tashirojima also doesn’t have many tourist facilities. There are no restaurants and very few shops but there are some family-operated bed and breakfasts called minshuku around Nitoda Port.
So are you interested in having ten to fifteen fluffy cats crowd around you all eager for you to pet them? Just be sure to wash your hands and your legs afterwards because you don’t know where those cats have been.
Written by: Edwin Soewono – Student of Hospitality and Tourism Business 2015