Puss & Boats: Tashirojima, Japan’s Island Of Cats
Tashirojima, the “Island of Cats”, is located in Ishinomaki Bay just east of the city of Sendai, Japan. The island’s many semi-domesticated cats vastly outnumber the island’s aging human population, who depend on the cats to control rodents (and attract tourists) and have constructed a number of cat-shaped buildings as a homage to their feline friends.
A Purr-fect Paradise
(images via: NGiley)
Tashirojima (田代島) is a 3.14 sq km (7.9 sq mi) island in northeastern Japan located 20 km (12.4 miles) east of the port city of Ishinomaki. The island sits just west of the Oshika Peninsula and travelers from afar wishing to visit usually fly into Sendai, the largest city in Miyage prefecture. If you’re starting in Tokyo expect the journey to take about 4 hours.
There is no airfield on the island so visitors arrive via a ferry (above) out of Ishinomaki – the trip takes roughly 40 minutes. Don’t expect a large welcoming committee when you get there, however… at least, not of the human persuasion. There are only 73 people living on Tashirojima, almost all of them over the age of 65. The island’s population has dropped by 90% over the past 50 years. The cats though, they’re doing just fine thank you.
Tashirojima has long been known as “The Island of Cats”. Domestic kitties were first brought to the island many centuries ago when Tashirojima’s main agricultural activity was silkworm farming. Since mice would prey on both the silkworms and their precious cocoons, the farmers imported cats to act as a natural form of pest control and encouraged the cats to, well, feel right at home.
Cat Fish Hunters
Times change, and by the late 19th century improvements in fishing nets allowed Tashirojima’s residents to pursue more lucrative activities offshore. Though the silk industry declined, the island’s cat population did not – people had gotten used to having cats around and the latter continued their mousing activities in and around the island’s docks, boathouses and storage sheds. Here’s a short video of Tashirojima’s cats doing their thing:
Tashirojima’s rich offshore fishing grounds attracted fisherman from other locations. Often these off-island fisherman would stay at inns on Tashirojima and the local cats would come around, begging for scraps. A form of folk wisdom soon established itself concerning the cats: it was believed that studying the behavior of the cats would help determine upcoming weather and fishing conditions.
(images via: Tofugu)
An apocryphal story concerns the cats of Tashirojima: “One day, when the fishermen were collecting rocks to use with the fixed-nets, a stray rock fell and killed one of the cats. The fishermen, feeling sorry for the loss of the cat, buried it and enshrined it at this location on the island.”
A small building (above) was constructed on the site and people would leave small cat-related talismans there in order to encourage the benevolence of both the living cats and the spirits of their ancestors.
“The cats here have always been something like a lucky charm for us who bring good catch,” said local fisherman Tsuneo Endo. “We enshrine them because they are important to us.”
The Local Cathouses
Japan’s many small and isolated communities often try to raise their profile by actively promoting anything that might distinguish them as being something special – and worthy of a visit. Tashirojima is no different, and the island is studded with inns and outbuildings boasting a cacophony of cat-like detailing.
(image via: Tofugu)
This is the country that gave the world Hello Kitty after all… you’d better believe there are people ready, willing and able to make the long and complicated trip to Tashirojima just to spend a night in a building shaped like a cat. Just don’t bring Fido along, for obvious reasons.
(images via: Tashiro-Hamaya)
“You may think this place is so peaceful,” says Yutaka Hama, “but if there’s a fire, there is nobody who can help put it out.” The 49-year-old Hama heads a group seeking to promote travel and tourism to Tashirojima – and maybe more.
“I want young people to come,” explains Hama, “there are folks here who would teach them fishing.” Hama, who moved to Tashirojima a few years ago and now operates an inn on the island, may hold out prospects of employment as a lure to visitors but it’s the island’s cats who seem to be a far bigger draw.
Tashirojima’s cats made a sudden leap to pop-culture prominence several years ago when a TV documentary on the cats of Tashirojima focused on one particular cat: Jack the Lop Ear, a black & white tom with a drooping left ear. There’s also Nyanko The Movie and its sequels, which feature the cats of Tashirojima. To paraphrase Field Of Dreams, “If you film it, they will come.”
Saved By A Whisker
The magnitude-9 earthquake which struck northeastern Japan on March 11th, 2011, shifted the entire Oshika Peninsula and its associated islands 5.3m (17 ft) towards the epicenter and lowered it by 1.2m (3.9 ft). The tsunami which followed was as high as 10m – the image above shows the waves about to inundate Ajishima (網地島). Tashirojima is a rugged island, however, whose highest peak rises to 96.2 meters (315 feet) above sea level. The two main villages on the island are Oodomari and Nitoda (home to most of the cats), with latter situated on high ground.
The NASA satellite image above left, taken shortly after the tsunami hit, shows Tashirojima above water and reports from the Japan Earthquake Animal Rescue and Support (JEARS) indicate all of the islands residents (cats AND humans) survived the disaster.
It was not until the morning of March 22nd that Japanese ASDF helicopters were able to land on Tashirojima, bringing much-need emergency supplies. 800 kilo-liters of gasoline and kerosene, food for 100 meals, and satellite phones were delivered but the situation on the island still remains precarious. JEARS has set up a Facebook page to keep concerned netizens advised on the situation on Tashirojima.
(image via: Discovery)
Massive earthquakes and nightmarish tsunamis are no strangers to Japan’s northeastern coast – they have happened before and will happen again, if history is any guide. The cats of Tashirojima are survivors, however, and it’s good to know that once again they have landed on their feet.