The history of cats and the people of Japan is a long one: cats have been kept as pets there for around 1300 years. Originally, cats were only kept by high-ranking figures such as members of the imperial family or nobles. But, as time went by, cats grew in popularity among ordinary people too, particularly during the Edo Period (1603–1868). Cats feature very heavily in ukiyo-e art—a Japanese style of woodblock prints known as "floating world pictures"—from this period, including pieces by such famous artists as Hiroshige! In Japanese modern literature, too, there are enduring classics by the great authors of Japan, such as Natsume Soseki and Miyazawa Kenji, that feature cats as their central theme. Japan has been experiencing a so-called "cat boom" in recent years, with lots of people making trips to places where they can see these increasingly popular and cute kitty-cats.
Tama, the Stationmaster Who Saved a Railroad Company in Crisis
In Japan, there are even cats that stand outside of businesses to draw customers inside with their cuteness, known as kanban-neko or "signboard cats." Among these customer-facing felines, the one that truly captured Japanese hearts was "Stationmaster Tama" of Kishi Station on the Wakayama Electric Railway Kishigawa Line.
Tama was a calico cat who originally lived in the Kishi Station concessions stand, but when the Kishigawa Line was faced with the threat of becoming disused, she was in danger of losing her home. But, when a new company took over management of the line, crisis was averted, and Tama was somehow appointed as stationmaster of Kishi Station. Stationmaster Tama was presented wearing her stationmaster's hat, overseeing the comings and goings of passengers, and crowds of people from across Japan came to meet her — helping to increase the railroad company's sales figures, too!
Tama helped to spread the charm and appeal of cats far and wide, and it's even said that she set the stage for the "cat boom" that came after.
Tashirojima, the Cat-Filled Island That Has Captivated Cat-Lovers the World Over
The island nation of Japan includes several "cat islands," where crowds of cats can be found enjoying a leisurely pace of life. In 2013, Tashirojima island in Miyagi Prefecture and Ainoshima island in Fukuoka Prefecture were featured by a TV network in the US in their list of the top six places in the world to see cats, putting Japan's cat islands on the map for audiences overseas.
Tashirojima island, in the city of Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, has a human population of around 60 people, but the cats number over 130, meaning that there are significantly more cats there than humans. In ages past, silkworms were bred on the island to make raw silk, and cats were used to protect the cocoons from rodent pests. There was also a thriving fishing industry: because cats' behavior could be used to predict the weather and entice large fish, the cats came to be seen as "guardian angels of fishing."
In more recent times, Tashirojima receives many visitors who want to come and admire the cats.
The Hillside Alleys of Onomichi — Cat Hangout Central
The city of Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture, which borders the Seto Inland Sea, is already a popular tourist destination that sees a lot of visitors, but recently it's also gained popularity as a "cat town." Onomichi is a port town surrounded by sea and mountains that boasts delicious fish. With its many slopes, narrow alleys and stairways that are inaccessible for cars, cats love it, and have made themselves right at home.
Some areas in Onomichi are being developed with a cat theme in mind: lots of fukuishineko (round stones painted to look like cats, which are thought to bring good luck) and other cat-themed decorations can be found in the city's back-alley areas, also known as "cat lanes."
There are many more places like these in Japan, where you can encounter cats that live in harmony with the local people. Cats can help people to feel relaxed and refreshed, and there are even people who go traveling with the specific goal of meeting cats.