Lovers of all cats, unite!
It is a well known fact that in Japan there are many places and areas populated by cats, where they are often more numerous than the local humans. This includes some Tokyo neighborhoods, such as Yanaka-Ginza. Then, what about putting a bunch of cute kitties on a tranquil and exotic island?
Ishinomaki was one of the areas hit the hardest by the earthquake and, above all, the 2011 tsunami, and restoration work is still ongoing, especially along the banks of the port. However, we will talk about Ishinomaki in a later article!
What’s so special about Tashiro-jima?
As we anticipated, this small island of only 3.14 square km is located about 16 km southeast of the port of Ishinomaki.
Arriving by ferry you will notice its hilly shape covered with pines making up a dense forest with a subtropical appearance, which creates a lot of contrast with the idea of being in the Tohoku region, usually imagined as a cold land, often covered with snow.
We disembarked at the port of Nitoda, the second ferry stop while coming from Ishinomaki, and immediately spotted several cats as they were there to welcome the visitors. As you walk to the centre of the village, located a short walk from the harbour, the number of kitties will only increase! There are even signs pointing you towards the direction where you can find more!
Why all these cats on this little island?
There are several theories, but the most accredited ones, which also apply to the other “cat islands” (such as the famous Enoshima, near Kamakura) of Japan (but not only), goes back to the need, in the past, to control the outbreak of plague, cholera and other diseases conveyed by rodents present on the island.
With the improvement of health conditions, of course this need has disappeared. Also, thanks to the flourishing fishing industry of these islands, cats have increased to the point that, today, they are way more cats than human inhabitants of the island. It is estimated that there are over 400 cats in comparison to the only 100 “human” inhabitants of the island.
In fact, Tashiro-jima, with 80% of its population consisting of elderly people, has been classified as a “terminal village” (genkai–shuraku) whose survival is put in serious jeopardy due to its low birth rate and ageing population.
A little curiosity about Tashiro-jima: here one is not allowed to keep dogs, in order not to disturb the balance of the feline population!
Walking through Tashiro-jima
In addition to the presence of cats, the village of Nitoda itself is very pleasant to walk around. You’ll find stone stairways and steep climbs between the brown-roofed houses, with the sea on the horizon framed by palm trees and other plants reminiscent of the southern islands. Also in the southern area, you will find the Buddhist temple “Manpuku-ji“. We recommend that you visit it, from here you can enjoy a beautiful sight of the village and Ishinomaki Bay.
Talking about what to eat, there are actually only a few places available, but the atmosphere is guaranteed!
We had lunch at the “Kuroneko-dō” (the black cat room), a small but cozy curry restaurant located inside the disused island’s former post office. We ordered this cute “neko curry”, which we enjoyed in the company of sleepy cats! Inside it, you can get nice cats-related gadgets, such as seals, keyrings, coasters and more!
Also next door is the Tashirojima Olive Cafe, with a stunning rooftop terrace overlooking the ocean. This place seems to be open only on weekends and holidays.
Walking through the dense vegetation of the island, you will come across small abandoned districts, with wooden houses now devoured by time and vines. Of course, every now and then you will find groups of cats wandering the few streets of the island. Given the small size of this island, a car would be pretty useless on Tashiro-jima, and you’ll see very few of them, meaning that cats are the real bosses of the streets!
The cat shrine and more
In the center of the island is the Neko Jinja, a real Shinto shrine dedicated to the kami of cats, considered to bear good fortune. Inside the small precinct you will notice many toys in the shape of cats, puppets and maneki-neko left by the different visitors who arrived on the island.
Just before you reach the shrine, you will find, built inside the former elementary school of the island, closed in 1989, another place used as a refreshment point, Nyanko Republic (“nyanko”, in Japanese, can be translated as “little cat”). Nyanko Republic is also responsible for the tourism promotion of the island, and has worked in past years (and continues to do so) to restore the damage of the 2011 tsunami, which also on this island was extensive.
Continuing north, before reaching the almost uninhabited village of Ōdomari, we recommend passing through Kashima Shrine, with its stone torii and long staircase, reminiscent of the times of ancestral Japan and the oldest Shinto rites. At this shrine they worship the kami Takemikazuchi, the god of thunder and sword, protector of all sanctuaries of the Kashima sect.
If you finish your exploration of Tashiro here, in the village to the north, you can directly return to Ishinomaki using the ferry that will arrive here about 5 minutes after leaving the port of Nitoda. Since there are not many connections, be careful not to miss your connections!
The island of Tashiro was a pleasant surprise. A little off the beaten destinations of tourism, it will definitely allow you to have “a Japanese cat all to yourself” at least for a few pleasant hours!
Finally, one last thing: it seems obvious, but let us remember not to leave waste and garbage on the island. In Japan there are few trash bins available, and this also applies to the island of Tashiro. Also, avoid giving food to cats, as, in fact, they are semi-wild, and are able to look after themselves without problems! 😻
Getting to Tashiro-jima isn’t easy, so here’s a step-by-step guide.