We have been to a few different animal places in Japan now, but the most recent and probably the one I was looking forward to the most was Cat Island. We have two adorable cats at home, who we miss very much and my in-laws are very kindly looking after for us while we are away. We are both very much cat people so the idea of going to a cat island was incredibly appealing to both of us.
What we didn’t realise before we got to Japan is that there are actually lots of cat islands, so we had just picked the one we had heard of before heading out to visit. Also known as Tashirojima, Cat Island is located to the north of Honshu and is accessed from Ishinomaki, which we didn’t realise until we got there also has another name: Manga Town.
We arrived in Ishinomaki the day before we intended to travel to Cat Island, and as we were walking to hour hotel we noticed that there were lots of images and statues from manga around, sure enough when we were checking into our hotel we saw a free map on the desk which declared that this was Manga Town, and there was a Manga Museum not far from where we needed to get the ferry to Cat Island, so we thought maybe we could drop in on it after Cat Island the next day. Unfortunately we had chosen a Tuesday to go to Cat Island and guess which day the museum was closed.
We also had to move on fairly quickly as we are starting to run short on time before our flight home so we didn’t get a chance to see it the next day. But we did get to see Manga Street and the way that the train station was done up. Apparently the creator of “Cyborg 009” along with some other titles came from Ishinomaki and came up with the idea of making it into Manga Town to attract visitors, so at least on the street, the characters were mainly from his series.
There was a lot of construction going on in the town while we were there, and the island for that matter. Apparently this is an area that was affected really badly by the Tsunami back in 2011 and while it is by no means still in a state of devastation it is still under developement. A note here as well, apparently the cats on the island survived the Tsunami (I assume not all of them, but the fact any did is amazing) by seeking shelter at the Cat shrine which is near the top of the island.
Anyway, early the next morning we headed for the ferry terminus, at this time of year there are only two ferries a day. While we had originally thought to stay on the island, there were very few options and none in our budget so we got the first ferry in the morning and the only one back in the afternoon.
Cat island was not quite what I expected, yes there were cats, but at first only a very few. I had expected it to be a little like Nara where almost everywhere you looked there would be another animal. Perhaps it was the time of year, or perhaps because it is not quite as accessible it is not quite the tourist attraction that Nara has become.
At the port there were a few cats here and there some of which did come and say hello to us, but we had read that on at least one of the other cat islands they prefer that you don’t encourage the cats to hang around the port, so we decided to walk up to the Cat Shrine.
The Cat Shrine is a Shinto Shrine with lots of images of cats, I don’t know a lot about shinto, but they worship spirits which often take the forms of animals, like deer or foxes so I am sure that this is a genuine shinto shrine to a cat spirit, especially with Japan’s love of cats.
As we made our way up there it was a very pretty walk along a bamboo lined road, we had elected to go up one way and then come down through the town. However although it was a pretty walk there was a distinct lack of cats. As we approached the shrine two girls appeared from the other direction, they were the first people we had seen since we got off the boat.
The girls were being followed by a long-haired black cat, it was very fluffy and meowing away. We also noticed that there was a short-haired black cat sitting on a bench by the shrine. The girls took a few photos, said hello to the short haired cat and then headed off. By this point the long haired black cat had headed over to the short haired and was being groomed by it.
We sat down next to the cats and within a few seconds the long-haired black cat had sat on my husband’s knee and was demanding to be stroked. After I stroked the other for a little while it reluctantly sat on my knee. We had a nice cuddle with them for a little while. It was probably the most peaceful I had felt for a while (if you are a cat person you will know exactly what I mean) but it couldn’t last forever and eventually the short hair cat got bored and jumped off me.
I decided this would be a good time to crack open the food I had brought for the cats and the bag rustling immediately got their attention and before I knew it I had two very attentive cats eating out of my hand. We also decided to leave a bit at the shrine but that also got eaten pretty much straight away.
We could have happily stayed there with those two cats, but we had come to see the island of cats not just two, so we decided to move on. The short hair stayed at the shrine so we decided that she was the shrine guardian, but the long hair kept following us and meowing so we decided that she was our tour guide for the island.
She followed us a lot further than I might have expected, certainly further than cats tend to in other places, possibly cause she knew we had food, but I liked the tour guide idea. We eventually came to a driveway which was decorated with buoys decorated to look like cats. There was one cat sitting by the buoys, it was another long hair, but it had quite a bit of grey mixed in with the black. She gave me the feeling she was an older cat and seemed to be in charge here, our tour guide eventually caught up and seemed on friendly enough terms with this cat as well.
As we were talking to the older looking cat we noticed a paw sticking out from under one of the buoys (well this one was half a buoy) and soon popped out another cat to say hello. The older cat then decided it had had enough and took the place of the buoy cat.
We realised that there was some kind of cafe or restaurant attached to this driveway and we saw that there was a cat playground constructed on the decking in front of the building. And there were more cats. We approached slightly hesitant at first, but we noticed that the girls who were at the shrine were also here and eventually one of the other people I recognised from the boat showed up.
The owner came out and fed the cats, and they appeared from everywhere, there were at least fifteen, all ages and genders, but mostly black or black and white. The owner was feeding them with the kind of fish flakes you get on the top of a lot of food in Japan, along with more conventional cat food.
The owner didn’t seem to mind that we were hanging around outside and not customers (we had brought lunch with us, and trying to save our budget a bit by this point) so we came over and sat on the decking. We obviously tried to say hello to the kittens, but they were much more nervous than the adult cats who had obviously come to associate strangers with food and did the cat avoiding hand thing that they do. It took a moment though for me to realise that just on the other side of a chair of where I had sat down there was a miniature ball of fluff.
It was the cutest little fluffy long-haired kitten and it didn’t mind me stroking it, it was pretty tired and seemed to just want to nap. We also saw some of the more active kittens chasing a beetle, which was amusing for us but maybe not so much for the beetle.
After a while the owner seemed to decide he wanted to impress us, and the other boat passenger, because he bought out these cat hats and first put one on the older cat we had seen earlier. She didn’t seem very impressed, but she also seemed fairly tolerant and didn’t try to get it off. He then had a second hat which he tried to put on a different cat, I think that one was a tom and he really wasn’t having any of it and got it off within a few seconds.
After the owner had given up on that cat, he brought out what we were guessing was his pride and joy, being that it was the only non monochromatic cat, on a harness and lead. I love cats but I am not a big fan of putting them on harnesses and this one clearly wasn’t too used to it as it kept low to the ground like it had something on it’s back and also made it look slightly like the cat was taking the owner for a walk rather than the other way about.
We decided to take this as a cue to leave and continue our exploration before he put the poor cats through anything more. We left our tour guide behind at that place, but soon we heard some meowing from ahead of us and a different tour guide appeared who followed us with continuous meows. We did give this new cat who looked to me like she was pregnant a bit of food, and eventually we must have entered another cat’s territory as she stopped following us.
We came to a junction, in one direction the road continued downwards and the other continued at the same level. The first would have taken us the short way back to the harbour while the other was a longer way through the village, we decided to go the longer route, plus we saw that there were more cats in that direction. There was a kitten sitting right in the middle of the road, so of course we decided to go and talk to it.
Unfortunately this was the first of the ill cats we came across. I looked it up after we left, but it seems as though a lot of the cats on the island had the feline equivalent of a cold, it can happen where cats feel stressed or overcrowded and it was pretty cold on the island, plus you have to remember that these are not household cats they are essentially strays. Most of the cats we saw like this had discharge from their eyes and nose, sounded like they were loosing their voices and a couple had trouble breathing. Apparently if left untreated this cold can turn into pneumonia especially in young kittens and I think this is what we saw in this kitten here.
The kitten was unresponsive to food, or petting and sounded like it was having issues. I am afraid there wasn’t much we could do for it, we barely saw anyone on the island other than those I already mentioned so it isn’t like we could alert someone and even if there had been, they aren’t pets so I am not sure anything would have happened.
There were a few other cats around this part, but none of them were very friendly and avoided us. So we continued on. Eventually we came across another cat, who was very friendly and it took us to meet its family. When I was reading up about potentially staying on the island I read about an anime camp, where you could stay in cat shaped huts or tents, obviously this wasn’t open at this time of year, but it seemed to be where we had stumbled on these cats.
It was the largest group of cats we had seen and most of them looked ill, they were all hanging out on this porch of a closed looking common area for this camp site. There were two more kittens here, they weren’t in nearly as bad a state, they just had the sniffles. There was a tray so we put most of the rest of the food we had in the tray and watched them scramble.
It was also here where I had the slightly bad luck of stroking a cat who had just been sneezed on and stroking the gunge. It was disgusting! As always however I had my hand sanitiser so I used it straight away.
After hanging out with these cats for a bit longer we noticed that our time was starting to run short and we should probably make our way back to the harbour. On our way back we saw some more of the lovely scenery as well as a couple more cats, some of who seemed ill and some who were well.
It was also at this time we met a cat that made me think of Old Deuteronomy from T. S. Eliot/the Cats musical, very old, very proud and very fluffy. I thought I probably should have been thinking of which Jellicle cats each of the ones we had met could have been but it was a bit late by that point.
We made it back to the harbour and while we were waiting for the ferry back we saw a guy fishing, I saw him catch a fish and give it to one of the two expectant looking cats at his feet, they obviously had a bit of a tussle over it, but eventually one won out. The rather sheepish shaggy looking cat we had seen earlier by the harbour also came over and she very much reminded me of Grizabella the glamour cat.
Our trip to cat island was an interesting one. It wasn’t quite what I had been expecting and I am glad we have our two to come home to, but I am glad we went all the same. I also really hope that those cats that were ill recover.