Today we went to Tashirojima, also known as Cat Island.
Tashirojima is a small island off the coast of Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, right by the epicenter of the quake and consequent tsunami that hit Japan on 11 March 2011.
Once populated by some 1000 people it now homes just around 100, and at least twice as many cats. Maybe more, and the number grows constantly.
On the path that links the Northern port to the Southern town lies an abandoned hospital and several houses now reclaimed by luscious vegetation and possibly some nature spirit, testimony of the decreasing human population.
Only a small helipad of all the hospital’s facilities remains maintained, suggesting that the small human population does not need a full clinic all the time and that in case of emergency the only way to leave the island is via helicopter, because after the last ferry leaves any latecomer will be stranded.
The only way to reach the island is to take a ferry from Ishinomaki. The town itself has seen better days, and reconstruction is still undergoing after the tsunami hit hard.
People are really nice and welcoming, like everywhere in Japan, and this kindness combined with the run-down look of the area gives the visitor an sense of saudade that I only felt in post-crisis Portugal and novels set in Innsmouth.
Please don’t misunderstand: I loved the place, and the people. You should visit and feel that: you can almost touch the sense of beauty and freshness now lost in a beautiful place that has seen better days. I just learned a word in Japanese that describes that: natsukashii
Let’s get back to the point: Cat Island.
You drop off the boat and are welcomed by two cats that meow and look almost human. They wait by the ferry, every day it is legit to assume, and welcome visitors with their verses.
If you are a nice person you bought food before hand and feed them and proceed in the forest.
Following the path you will meet several other cats, some crow and several wooden buildings with trees and bamboo canes growing within their walls.
Several porcelain pots lie scattered near the road, usually by a tree, probably part of some (burial?) local tradition.
After twenty minutes on the path you find a shrine with several dolls, painted stones and other cat-related items.
The shrine was built by fishermen many a year ago and shows how important cats are for the locals.
Apparently, cats were brought on the island to prey upon rats and mice that were a major threat to the silk worms used to produce high quality nets.
At the time Tashirojima had a strong industry and several fishermen spent time there to get their nets done. Cats enjoyed the lack of predators on the island and scraps from the daily fishing.
The shrine was built after two fishermen accidentally killed one of those cats dropping a stone, and feeling bad decided to do something to celebrate the friendship between the two species. Since then cats and local population have become one thing, and the shrine celebrates this union.
On your way many and many more cats approach you from every direction. If you still have food they will be happy to have some and will follow you, or better guide you through the daedalus of small roads that at one point split the main path.
It’s easy to get distracted and get on the wrong way, only to realise that half an hour later when you end up in a cul-de-sac in the middle of the forest.
You walk back, try to figure out where you came from and where you should go to get your ferry before it’s too late.
It’s becoming dark, and your phone ran out of battery. The printed map you got at the ferry terminal in Ishinomaki is useful, but without GPS or a compass it’s still a bit complicated to navigate around.
Eventually you manage to reach the ghostly town on the south end of the island. Shops are possibly closed, or open and empty behind those half-raised curtains. There is a couple of vending machines, one of which seems to have been empty for ages, a few empty houses and the noise of the ferry preparing to leave far ahead.
You manage to get through the narrow alleys, with your tail of cats behind you, and once you reach the pier, with the last sun you see the boat leaving without you.
There is no inn, no reastaurant where to spend the night, there is no one except for cats and an old lady gently sweeping the leaves from her porch.
You get there, want to ask if you can charge your phone or call someone but the only thing you can do is meow, as you lost the boat and are now a cat of the island.
She smiles and scratches your head gently as you try harder to sound human, at no avail.
With time you will forget life outside the island.