Wander a Japanese city through the eyes of a cat — just as thousands of actual felines already do.
In the summer of 2016, it wasn’t uncommon to see throngs of people gathered in public places, all looking down at their phones as they accidentally bumped into one another while playing Pokémon Go. However, this wasn’t the first viral game to bridge the real and virtual worlds.
Two years prior, millions became obsessed with the app Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector, in which you leave out food or toys to lure stray cats for a visit. While even the game’s creator was surprised by its popularity, it represented but one moment in Japan’s eternal obsession with cats.
So, of course, today you can use your web browser to explore the city of Onomichi, in the Hiroshima prefecture, as if you were a cat.
Hiroshima Cat Street View, the brainchild of the Hiroshima tourism board, was launched to help would-be visitors explore aspects of the city they might not have thought to otherwise. As you prance along the city streets, checking out certain shops and restaurants, you can click on marked points of interest and even other stray cats — and read their biographies. Unlike a real cat, you can’t get lost since you follow a dotted yellow line on your screen along streets and through alleyways. But the more you discover about Onomichi this way, the more you’ll want to visit in person and actually get lost there.
So, why a cat? Should you have the opportunity to walk the streets of Onomichi, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll see one or more strays. They’re as much a part of the community as anyone else, with specific cats known to hang around certain shops or restaurants. They’re more than tolerated and not at all considered a nuisance. But Onomichi, in particular, is famously feline-friendly.
One of the town’s main attractions is Cat Alley, a stretch of shops, cafés and sake bars marked by more than 100 cat sculptures. What’s more, two Onomichi strays recently gained worldwide internet fame when, every day for a couple years, they tried to enter the city’s main art museum. Ken-chan and Go-chan, as the cats are known, get a little play time with the friendly security guards before they’re sent on their way, but the daily interactions are routinely shared online — including on the museum’s Twitter account.
While things look decidedly different — and vastly bigger — from a cat’s perspective at street level, exploring Onomichi through this new tool feels oddly exciting. To understand why, perhaps it’s worth looking back at the appeal of Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector. In the game, sometimes the cats accept your offerings and sometimes they don’t. They come and go of their own volition, their interest piqued at some moments, fleeting at others. In a sense, it’s just like the experience of visiting a new city for the first time as a tourist.
The only question that Hiroshima Cat Street View leaves you with after you’ve explored Onomichi on four virtual furry paws is, why can’t every city do this?