Japan’s Cat Islands
When you think of vacations, what comes to mind? In addition to picturesque locales, you probably imagine comfortable accommodations, exotic tastes, and new opportunities for cultural immersion. What about several hundred stray cats? If that sounds like your idea of a must-see spot, one of Japan’s “cat islands” could be the destination for you.
Featuring far more cats than humans, these islands have become objects of fascination for cat lovers everywhere. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by photos like these? Many feline fanatics have even trekked across the globe for the unusual experience of being outnumbered by cats.
Aoshima and Tashirojima
Japan boasts more than a dozen so-called cat islands. Each features a staggering population of cats and just a small handful of human residents. Two islands in particular — Aoshima and Tashirojima — tend to attract most of the attention from both tourists and cat enthusiasts on the internet.
Located in the nation’s Ehime Prefecture, Aoshima Island is the smaller and more sparsely populated of Japan’s most well-known cat islands. In the mid-20th century, it was home to around 900 people. Those residents brought cats to Aoshima to help keep local mice from disrupting the fishing industry. Now, cats vastly outnumber people, with a population spike beginning a few decades ago. The island’s few locals continue to care for its immense feline population and accounts on both Twitter and Instagram catalog the cats’ daily lives. In 2014, these accounts were useful in soliciting emergency supplies following extreme weather.
Tourists interested in visiting Aoshima should make haste. The island’s cat population is quickly disappearing. In February 2018, Ehime Prefecture authorities announced that they would spay or neuter every cat on the island. All but ten cats have now received one of these procedures. It is believed that the few remaining cats were protected by a local who opposed the program. The population has recently, however, declined more quickly than expected. Experts worry that someone may be poisoning cats to further cull the population. Protection groups have vowed to address these crimes and save Aoshima’s remaining cats.
As in Aoshima, Tashirojima’s human residents are greatly outnumbered by their feline neighbors (several hundred to about a hundred). Both islands have a similar story as well. Tashirojima’s 18th and 19th-century residents managed a textile industry with the help of silkworms. They counted on cats to protect these worms by keeping mice at bay. Soon, the island’s population began to regard the cats with reverence and credit them with bringing good luck. They offered food, erected shrines, and the cat population has continued to grow ever since.
The island once counted famous manga artist Shotaro Ishinomori among its hundred or so residents. He designed “Manga Island,” a section of Tashirojima that features cat-themed buildings and manga exhibitions.
Visiting Cat Islands
Hoping to visit Aoshima? Don’t count on finding any restaurants or hotels. With so few people on the island, there isn’t much in the way of a tourism industry — there aren’t even vending machines. Visitors are permitted to feed the feline residents (within reason) and they’re advised to bring food and drinks of their own.
Welcoming visitors with a similar ferry service, Tashirojima offers several amenities that Aoshima lacks. These include a cafe, a cat-themed gift shop, and even lodges for multi-day visits during certain months. Year round, visitors definitely won’t want to miss Tashirojima’s most famous sight: the Neko-jinja shrine. It’s one of more than fifty similar statues you’ll see strewn across the island.
Ferry rides to both islands are short, but space is limited and schedules are subject to change as a result of weather. Bring your camera, but don’t bring your dog. On Tashirojima, at least, they’re strictly forbidden.
More Unusual Destinations for Cat Lovers
Cat fanatics don’t need to go to the other side of the globe for a good time. There are destinations for cat people all over the world, including several right here in the United States:
- Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum (Key West, Florida): Once the residence of a famous writer, this museum now houses a famous collection of stray cats. Locals say they number in the dozens.
- Feline Historical Museum (Alliance, Ohio): Did you know that Frank Lloyd Wright once designed a three-story cat house? It’s just one of the thousands of artifacts and artworks you’ll find in this Midwest museum.
- Cat Town Cafe (Oakland, CA): America’s first cat cafe is also an adoption center. Stop by for a cup of joe and maybe you’ll leave with a new furry friend.
Will you be bringing your cat along on any trips this summer?