In Japan, neko (cats) are becoming a must-pet tourist attraction. Roaming cities and towns, taking over coffee shops, the animals have stolen the hearts of residents and visitors alike. Today, there are more than 150 cat cafés dotting Japan. Though other animals, like hedgehogs, owls and bunnies, are getting their own themed locales, they can’t compete with the national love of cats.
Now, businesses are finding new, creative ways to meet demand for all things feline. But what’s driving this kitten love?
The rise of cats
The passion for petting dates back to long before 1000-yen-an-hour coffeeshop playdates. Cats have a long history of protecting and aiding human friends across Japan. From fighting off mice for silk producers in Nagaoka and Kyoto in centuries past to aiding ancient samurais in their military efforts, furry friends are credited with a number of heroic acts that earned them iconic shrines and statues.
One historical feline is fabled to have beckoned a lord toward him, and, right after the man approached the cat, lightning struck where he’d been standing. Some credit this story as the impetus for the ubiquitous “cat beckoning statue,” the maneki-neko. Today, visitors will notice the statue everywhere, welcoming visitors to stores and decorating homes. The cat is believed to bring good fortune, making the waving animal, known for its raised paw, an excellent gift or lucky souvenir.
Travelers can purchase a classic ceramic maneki-neko at the highly Instagram-able Gōtokuji Temple, aka the lucky cat temple, in Tokyo, where thousands of figurines fill the shrine.
But for those looking to make memories with live cats, options span far beyond cafés.
Take a trip to cat island
That’s right, an island populated with more cats than people. Japan is home to a few cat islands, and we recommend feline fans visit one of them for unique experience.
Though there are nearly a dozen spots known for their four-legged residents, two of the most popular include Tashirojima Island and Aoshima Island.
Tashirojima Island’s 100 human inhabitants are outnumbered by its sizeable feline population. A cat lover’s dream! Happy cats rule over the area – no dogs allowed – and are beloved by residents, as feeding them is auspicious and believed to bring wealth. To get there, head north to the city of Ishinomaki in on Japan’s Honshu mainland. From there, take the hour-long ferry, which runs three times a day, to reach the island.
On Aoshima Island, just off the western coast of Japan, cats come running to snuggle, play and receive a few treats from visitors arriving via the twice-daily ferry. To win a few friends, it’s not a bad idea to BYO canned tuna for the cats and human refreshments for yourself, as there are no vending machines, restaurants or hotels. This is an island for locals and true cat-enthusiasts.
Or meet cats indoors, no coffee necessary
In addition to the kitted-out cat cafés, some establishments are beginning to offer new activities like “cat on a mat” – a human yoga class where cats roam the room. While you stretch your limbs, felines are free to practice their downward dog, sleep on your mat or climb all over you.
But for Tokyo visitors ready to branch out, turn your attention to the “cat pub” Akanasu in Tokyo’s Asahigaoka neighborhood. There, five kitties keep you company over a beer and snacks. Be careful, though, they may want a bite.
And in Osaka, check out a clever take on the cat spaces: Neko Yokujo and neighboring Neko Hatago. Neko Yokujo is a cat café in a reclaimed bathhouse, which offers animals plenty of room to roam. But Neko Hatago is actually a capsule hotel, where a glass partition gives each private room a view of the café after hours. Because the spaces are separated, it’s perfect for all cat lovers, even those with allergies.
It’s all in the name of feline tourism. To know Japan, you also have to get to know its national treasure: adorable kitties.