FUKUOKA – With two islands populated by large numbers of stray cats, Japan has a new tourist craze: sea cruises to visit the felines.
Ainoshima, also known as Cat Heaven Island, is a 20-minute ferry ride from Shingu port near the city of Fukuoka.
It has seen a startling change of late as groups of women, foreign tourists and other feline-fanciers visit the fishing village to see the cats.
But although island welcomes the economic boost, there have been complaints about visitors’ behavior: They ignore signs telling them not to feed the cats, they drop litter — and they block the toilets.
About 100 cats live on the island, which is a little less than 6 km around and has a population of roughly 280 people.
It was only about a year ago that the tourist boom began here. In the past, locals say, only anglers would visit.
The town office, which had done nothing to promote the cats on the island, could not figure out why so many people were arriving until it became apparent that Ainoshima, along with Tashiro Island in Miyagi Prefecture, had been featured in the news.
TV network CNN named Ainoshima and Tashiro islands as one of “six places where cats outshine tourist attractions” in 2013, and the Japan Times published an article about Ainoshima in 2014 titled “The feral felines of Cat Heaven Island.“
Little by little, the cats of Ainoshima have acquired global fame, and now, instead of Abenomics, the talk of the town is nekonomics (cat-nomics).
The cats are everywhere, lying about and frolicking when visitors disembark at the port. The visitors’ faces light up as they snap photos and bend down to stroke the cats.
On one clear March day, a ferry that makes round trips from the Kyushu mainland was packed with visitors. It can carry up to 150 passengers.
“On days like consecutive holidays we can’t accommodate them unless we employ extra vessels. It’s an amazing change,” said ferry captain Kiyokazu Mifune, 46, who lives on the island.
The visitors love what they find.
“All of the cats are friendly and playful. I’m glad I came here,” said Haruka Izu, 26, a vocational student from the city of Miyazaki.
Kiriko Chinen, 25, from Okinawa, agreed: “The atmosphere with the cats living on this tranquil island is wonderful. I want to come again.”
Business has been booming for Ainoshima’s sole dining facility. The economic impact from the influx of tourists has been considerable.
But the enthusiasm is tempered. Islanders complain of tourists littering, stopping up public toilets and feeding the cats. Foreign visitors especially are cited as causing headaches.
“It’s great that our island has become famous, but it’s no good if they disrupt our tranquil way of life,” said a man in his 60s.
The town of Shingu has posted signs in Japanese, English and Korean that say do not feed the cats.
“We want to make sure everyone can coexist so there is no friction between the islanders, the cats and the tourists,” said an official of the town’s industrial development section.