Traditionally, cats have been highly regarded in Japan and they have often been epitomized by the maneki neko. The maneki neko is a good luck talisman in the shape of a cat that is often found in shops, restaurants, pachinko parlors and other businesses. The figurine is always depicted with one paw up in the air. It is a common belief that if the left paw is raised, the maneki neko will beckon customers and if the right paw is raised, it will bring good luck and wealth.
Hence, it is quite easy to understand why a large population of cats in any given location can draw a steady stream of tourists throughout the year. One such place is located in Miyagi Prefecture, not far from Ishinomaki City. The tiny island of Tashirojima, known as Cat Island, is a place where the cat population literally outnumbers the human population and dogs are strictly prohibited. The island measures approximately seven miles in circumference and is home to about 100 citizens, mostly seniors over the age of 70. The island’s main industry was raising silkworms and the cats were kept to ward off the mice, the natural predators of silkworms. The silkworm industry has since given way to fishing and the island is now famed for its oysters and abalone. However, the cats have remained on the island and their population has increased over the years. There is even a cat shrine near the center of the island where locals pray for prosperity and good fishing.
The island consists of two villages: Odomari and Nitoda. These villages have been designated as Genkai-shuraku/限界集落, meaning that with a large majority of the population being over 65 years of age, the survival of the villages is indeed threatened. The cat island campaign was conceived as a way in which to draw people to the island to visit and eventually live there, thus ensuring the survival of the villages.
Tashirojima is also referred to as Manga Island. Shotaro Ishinomori, a Japanese manga artist known for creating several popular manga series including Kamen Rider, built several manga related buildings on the island in the shape of cats. The buildings comprise a camping resort which is open daily from April through October (with the exception of Tuesdays). Reservations are required and generally must be made at least two weeks in advance.
The island suffered substantial damage during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and following tsunami. Both villages were flooded and several buildings close to the coast were destroyed. Fortunately, the debris was cleared away within a year and the tourists have returned to the island to photograph, play with and feed the cats. The cats roam freely mostly around Nitoda on the southeastern part of the island.
There are a small number of minshuku (Japanese style bed and breakfasts) around Nitoda. The island lacks restaurants and there are very few shops or public toilets available so plan accordingly. Further, visitors are asked to carry home all the garbage they produce on the island.
So whether you are a cat lover, appreciate the manga created by Shotaro Ishinomori or you simply want to escape to a place where the pace is more relaxed, a day trip to Cat Island may be the right choice.
Tashirojima can be accessed via the Ajishima Line Ferry which departs from Ishinomaki City. The journey lasts one hour each way and costs around ¥1,200. There are three departures per day and tickets can be purchased on the ship.