“The best cat island in Japan? Aoshima, of course!” said a man I met on another Setouchi island famous for its resident cats, Manabeshima. The feline connoisseur was busy alternately petting the cats and photographing them. For several years, he had been spending his free time hopping among Japan’s many neko no shima (猫の島, cat islands) to take cat pictures. He liked them all, he assured me, but if he had to choose only one, it would definitely be Aoshima (青島) in Ehime Prefecture.
Aoshima, the Best Cat Island in Japan
But what exactly makes Aoshima so special, and different from other cat islands? There are various reasons, but one of them is obvious as soon as you get off the boat, as a meowing welcome committee rushes up to greet you: the local feline population density. Just a couple years ago, there were some estimated 200 cats living on this tiny island. Various breeds are represented, with a large majority of orange and brown tabbies, as well as calicos.
You might think that there is not much to do on a small island like Aoshima… and you would be right. But just imagine spending time with a bunch of friendly meowing and purring cats, strolling around the island with them by your side, or just sitting down to contemplate the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea as your furry friends leisurely play, stretch and sleep. Truly, Aoshima is a pure cat lover’s paradise.
Tips for Visiting a Cat Island in Japan
Aoshima is not a tourist site, so it is very important to respect the tranquility of the island, as well as private property. Some local people might enjoy interacting with visitors, but others just want to live in peace. Also note that Aoshima has no accommodations, shops, cafes, or even vending machines, so be sure to come with all you might need, and take your garbage back with you.
As for the cats, the local residents feed them every day, so they don’t beg for food. However, it’s always a nice experience for visitors to feed the cats, so feeding is allowed within a designated area, in order to avoid disrupting port activity and disturbing the residents. Just be sure to bring only cat food and give them small portions, so as not to make them sick. But food is not the only way to make a cat happy; another good idea is to bring toys to play with them.
How did Aoshima become a Cat Island?
Aoshima actually evolved into a “cat island” quite by accident. Several decades ago, it used to be a bustling fishing village whose livelihood was based around a sardine fishery, where cats were introduced to hunt mice. Over time, the island’s fishing activity declined, as did its human population, but the cats remained and thrived.
After some cat lovers discovered the island, word-of-mouth spread, then was largely amplified by the Internet (the other cat paradise). This catapulted the small sleepy island to international fame as THE cat island, attracting both Japanese and overseas tourists.
What is the Future of Aoshima?
Let’s face it, despite Aoshima’s relative popularity, the island is hardly a tourist site, and certainly not an open-air cat cafe managed for commercial purposes. So in 2018, authorities finally decided to implement a widespread neutering plan in order to reduce the local cat population. By 2019, Aoshima’s feline population was estimated at around 200, while the number of human residents had dropped to just 6 elderly individuals. Unfortunately, there is no way to maintain the “cat island” over the long term, because the cats largely depend on humans to eat and survive.
The sad truth is that Aoshima will likely eventually become an uninhabited island. The local ferry line is maintained for use by residents, not tourists, so if the resident population totally disappears, so will the ferries.
However, if you are a truly dedicated cat lover who respects the well-being of both the colony and the residents, you still have a chance to spend some precious quality time with the felines, on this peaceful cat island.
How to get to Aoshima
Aoshima is accessible by boat from Nagahama port (長浜港). Each one-way trip takes 35 minutes, and the round-trip costs ¥1,360 (¥680 for children under 12). There are 2 departures per day at 8:00 and 14:30; the only return ferry is at 16:15. As the number of seats is limited, we recommend taking the early 8:00 morning ferry in order to secure a seat on the 16:15 return. Note that the connection may be suspended in case of bad weather.
Nagahama port is located a 5-minute walk away from Iyo-Nagahama train station (伊予長浜駅), which can be reached on the JR Yosan Line, about 1 hour from Matsuyama station (松山駅).
Matsuyama is directly accessible from Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto by train (although the journey takes more than 4 hours) or by domestic flights to Matsuyama Airport (about 1 hour 40 minutes from Haneda or Narita Airport in Tokyo, or 1 hour from Itami Airport in Osaka)
Please note that the local community is requesting that visitors refrain from coming to Aoshima until the COVID-19 pandemic is over. The island is small and has no medical facilities, so please cooperate to protect the residents.
Visiting other Animal Islands in Setouchi
If you love animals, the Setouchi region is full of enchanting islands in its inland sea. This includes the highest density of cat islands in Japan: Aoshima, of course, but also Manabeshima in Okayama prefecture, Sanagishima and Ogijima in Kagawa prefecture, Iwaishima in Yamaguchi prefecture, and Muzukijima in Ehime prefecture. That makes a total of 6 cat islands—enough to think about planning a thematic trip!
If you prefer rabbits, head to Hiroshima prefecture, where Okunoshima is the only rabbit island in Japan. Also in Hiroshima, don’t miss Itsukushima island, also known as Miyajima, where you’ll find many shika deers, the sacred animals of the famous floating red torii shrine.
Text by Clémentine Cintré